It makes the actual flight seem better?
December 28, 2010 8:24 PM   Subscribe

Why does Southwest Airlines choose not to use assigned seating on their flights?

We flew SWA this past week, and can't figure out who might benefit from their lack of assigned seats. It seems like it is more frustrating for everyone, including the flight attendants. The plane ends up loading from front to back (which is much slower and more chaotic, it seems) and there are fewer seats available in the waiting area at the gate because of the designated area for people to line up. Does this really save money or time in some way? I sincerely want to understand.
posted by palacewalls to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Believe it or not, Southwest's turnaround time (between deplaning passengers from one flight and loading the next flight's passengers) is about half of that of other airlines. This means they have, over the years, had a much better track record of on-time arrivals than most (all?) other major US carriers, particularly at smaller airports (this is less true at NY and Boston area airports for some reason).

Personally, I really like being able to pick my own seat on a plane, and not have to pay a surcharge for an aisle seat, or a window seat, or a bulkhead seat, or basically anything besides a middle seat... and I don't think I'm alone in preferring SWA for this reason (among many).
posted by amelioration at 8:34 PM on December 28, 2010

Some people like it, and it apparently is faster. I however despise it and only fly Southwest as an absolute last resort, even if the other options are dramatically more expensive (though I will generally choose SWA if they have a direct flight and no one else does -- connections are the one thing I hate more than general admission seating).
posted by sharding at 8:35 PM on December 28, 2010

It's probably faster as everyone is already in line before they open the doors.
posted by chairface at 8:37 PM on December 28, 2010

Best answer: The competitive edge that having to fight for your seat requires makes everyone move more efficiently. I love it. Southwest doesn't fly to where I most frequently have to fly to, so I've only taken it a few times in my life--and every time I have noticed how much less lollygagging there is. (I have also luckily always been able to pounce on my flight as soon as check-in opens, so I've always had a high A boarding priority. I can see people who get stuck in C not having such a good time.)
posted by phunniemee at 8:45 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like it personally because it saves me time and it seems egalitarian. I don't like paying more for certain seats and I especially don't like being forbidden from moving seats because the seats up front which are all empty are premium seats. I like that there's no first class and that the flight attendants don't have to enforce bizarre arbitrary seating rules. I also think this approach calms passengers, doesn't enforce a passenger hierarchy and means that if you check in earlier [or, yes, pay for the whatever special early boarding] you can be assured of having a decent chance getting a seat you'd like. I also like them because they still have peanuts and their flight attendants seem more like people who are supposed to help you not kill each other than snooty waitresses. I live someplace where I'm going to be getting a connecting flight no matter what, and so the connection deals are less of a problem.

But yes: I like general boarding. Once you do it a few times you've got a fairly good idea what sort of chance you'll have getting the seats you want. And yes, it's quicker.
posted by jessamyn at 8:45 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a Southwest devotee. I like the general boarding because it does seem egalitarian. If I get to an emergency row seat first, I can sit there. In fact, they changed it so you can pay extra to be in the A group and I'm not a fan. My husband and I almost always get a boarding pass in the A group or first half of the B group and we always get a middle and window seat next to each other. I really don't care where I sit for the most part. I just prefer a window seat and it's never been a problem. I've never been bumped.

I also think it makes people more calm. I don't have to try to find what seat my ticket is when I get on, I can just sit wherever I want. And if there is some weird situation where like, a parent wants to sit next to a kid (though I don't think that happens anymore because they let families board after the A group) and the seats aren't available or if for some reason someone needs to sit in the emergency row or front row for the leg room, people are more comfortable moving around because they didn't pay for the privilege of sitting somewhere.

When I fly other airlines, I feel like I'm being micromanaged or treated like a child. I'm an adult. We're all (for the most part) adults. We can all figure out where to sit without being told.

Also, I think one of the reasons that Southwest boards more quickly than other airlines is because they let you check bags for free so there isn't this race to jam your bag in the overhead. In fact, I noticed once when I flew SW recently that the overhead compartments weren't close to full. It made things less stressful for the passengers and the flight attendants.
posted by kat518 at 9:38 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love Southwest! Not only do I get to check bags for free, but I am always guaranteed an aisle seat, wherever I want to sit on the plane, because I check in early. You have a pretty good shot of getting an aisle if you are earlier than about B20-30, I've noticed. Anything later than that, sitting together with more than 2 people or getting the seat you want in the area you want will be difficult.

I think the main reason Southwest is awesome, however, and the main reason the airline uses the system, is because it rewards people for being early and for being efficient. If you check in 24 hours ahead of time, you get the seat you want and Southwest gets groups of people lined up patiently in numerical order. When I've taken other airlines, there is more time wasted as people figure out what order they board in, and I always somehow end up in one of the last groups, with no room for my bags and stuck next to people I don't want to sit next to. Of course, if you're not on top of it, you could be stuck in that position with Southwest too, I guess. But with Southwest, not everybody will be stuck like that.
posted by pecknpah at 9:40 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, as someone who used to fly Southwest almost exclusively I did enjoy the general order of the boarding process.

Now that I fly United I get annoyed at the "gate lice" - people in boarding groups 2, 3 and 4 that crowd around the boarding lanes before anything's been called at all. That makes for a frustrating experience.

Southwest is so explicit in their instructions that it's rarely a problem.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:45 PM on December 28, 2010

I read somewhere the cost is the system was prohibitive back in the day. However, this article suggested "customers like choosing their seats"
posted by jseven at 9:45 PM on December 28, 2010

Count me among those who hate choosing seats on Southwest. Everyone tends to try for either an aisle or a window, so the plane fills up except for the middle seat. I don't really care which seat I have, but like to be near the front of the plane if possible, which usually means I'm choosing the middle seat and the people around me get annoyed that I took "their" extra space. I'm willing to pay the extra amount to avoid dealing with the whole experience.
posted by fishmasta at 9:53 PM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow! I am surprised by these responses. Over the years, I've come to dislike the Southwest experience more and more, so it is interesting to get some insight from those of you who prefer it. Early check in is obviously important here. We thought we were early by doing it the night before, but our ranking at the end of the B group said otherwise.

amelioration, can you point to any specific references that discuss the faster boarding time?

After watching the ballet of overhead baggage confusion and hearing the flight attendant chastise people (such as ourselves) in later boarding groups as they wandered the cabin trying find seats together near the back of the plane, I'm not sure I agree with you all. But that's just like, your opinion, man.
posted by palacewalls at 11:08 PM on December 28, 2010

Seriously, because it's cheaper.

Everything Southwest does as a company is to reduce the bottom line, but you have to admire the simplicity in how they do it.

- They only fly one airframe, so they only have to buy parts/train pilots/calculate fuel consumption for that airframe. (The Boeing 737-X00. Quite the engineering marvel.)

- The counter-intuitive idea that pricing short (100-400 mile flights) for $59, $69 and $79 was a worthwhile endeavor. That 737 airframe lends itself to short, under-fueled flights. The new engines add a ton to the fuel efficiency. So, I can cheaply fly from Minneapolis to Chicago.

- Realized that charging for bags was a penny safe, pound foolish idea. So, free bags.

- Seemed to take a lesson service-wise from European and Asian airlines, something American airlines are ridiculously loathe to do. Specifically they took a lesson from Korean Air.

Also, the flight attendants are an order of magnitude friendlier than the FA's on a Delta/ex-Northwestern flight. Why? I'd love to know.

If I hit a sale, I can buy a one way ticket from Minneapolis to Chicago for $59. That might just be among the leaders in relative price in history to go from MSP to MDW. How much is London to Paris? (A shorter flight than MSP to MDW.)
posted by Sphinx at 11:48 PM on December 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Uh, you may not agree with me, but the data does. Here's a paper put out by the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth outlining much of Southwest's operation. It's a bit outdated, but the trends remain the same, but here's a 2007 news report that also discusses turnaround times and how they relate to lower fares.

Of course, I can understand how finding the experience to be aggravating would distort your perception of how long it lasted -- alternatively, your single experience may have been an anomaly from the overall trend.
posted by amelioration at 11:50 PM on December 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't prefer Southwest (it's great until a plane breaks down, or a crew member gets sick, 'cause there's no slack in the system), but the front door always closes well before departure time for me. Because people have to fight for their seats, everyone is in the gate area well before they start. The planes aren't sitting at the gate full of people while the last 2 folks finish paying their tab at the bar.

Sorry you got yelled at, and that it spoiled your experience.
posted by hwyengr at 12:06 AM on December 29, 2010

I'm not a big fan of unreserved seating, mainly because on LCCs with hardly any leg room, if you don't line up first you inevitably get stuck with a middle seat or at the back of the plane.

Specifically they took a lesson from Korean Air.

Having flown Korean Air short-haul, what lesson did Southwest take from them? I'd be very interested in knowing, seeing as how KE is a legacy carrier with a history of problems, while WN is a LCC with a completely different business model.
posted by armage at 12:48 AM on December 29, 2010

Best answer: Southwest also consistently beats the rest of the industry in on-time flight performance (ranking #1 from 1987-2009 according to this) because they can turnaround and push off faster.

Not only that, but the Southwest ethos incentivizes the FAs and has them assist with cleaning in between and working to push off as soon as possible.

The crazy thing about Southwest is that their employees genuinely seem to enjoy their job. This is not an isolated experience: over and over and over again, I am greeted by chipper check-in people, fantastic flight attendants, and great phone service. They wear fun costumes and decorate their check-in areas and sing songs and make jokes on take off and departure. It's a different approach and it keeps them professional but human.

I swear I have run into United attendants who would prefer the plane explode into a ball of fire so that their day could end. They treat everyone with this gestapo attitude and they just seem genuinely unpleasant. I've had a couple less-unpleasant experiences with United, and I've had some great experiences with Continental (damn their merger) and even US Airways, but NO ONE is having as much fun as Southwest. In an environment that is stressful, low margin, and pressurized differently than we're used to, some fun and humanity can really go a long way.

Southwest has taken that to heart and frequently been voted best place to work by their own employees.

I think the sense of humor shifts back a bit to the egalitarianism. They make it a good experience for everyone, and that means not having to pay $10 more for an aisle seat. Frankly, I hate getting nickel and dimed and I *really* hate the perception I have that airlines are trying to squeeze every last possible cent out of me. Southwest offers preferred boarding, and a more flexible, more-credit-earning ticket tier, but I'm still going to end up in an aisle if I want.

The perception that the plane loads exclusively from front to back is a bit flawed, too. The first couple rows' aisle-window combinations fill up pretty quickly, so people shuffle past them and begin filling out behind them quickly. This is typically two fewer people to load into those front rows, since the middle is skipped when possible.

The new ordered boarding system (as opposed to just A, B, and C, as it used to be) has gone a long way towards simplifying the system (somewhat ironically) and making it more accessible to new users. This was a pretty substantial improvement and I'm sure a bit of a capital expenditure to get rolling, but it's still likely miles cheaper than running a seat management system that has to track every single seat, class, price difference-per-seat, and do things like release seats the day before or whatever nonsense the assigned seat airlines do.

The strange psychology of inspiring people to line up and self-organize so as to get the very best seat is rather brilliant on its own, as others have pointed out. People will mosey on in whenever they want if they have an assigned seat. A dramatization of this was run by America West (I think) juxtaposing the calm, soothing boarding process of their assigned methodology, with Southwest's crazed, punk-rock-concert (I think there was a mosh pit and crowdsurfers, seriously) approach. Instead, people organize, typically act efficiently, and focus on getting on that damn plane. You can't BEG people to do that as quickly on other airlines.

Add to that a few other small things Southwest does, like free snacks, free drinks when you earn a free ticket (I mean, seriously, 4 free drinks with every free ticket you earn is kind of insane) and a BIRTHDAY CARD mailed to you every year, not to mention free first AND second bags, on-time flights, cheap flights, and friendly staff, and I can figure out where to sit on my own, thankyouverymuch.
posted by disillusioned at 1:01 AM on December 29, 2010 [7 favorites]

Agree. SWA if for people who want to get from A to B with the least amount of drama. It is like taking a train, not going to the opera. First come, first served, you sit where there is room.

When you are traveling with other people, you have to accept that you might not get seats together. But the other thing about SWA is that the passengers are more likely to be nice. There seems to always be some kind of Houston businessman willing to give up his seat to make room for families or couples.

My only two reservations (ha!) with the system is the stupid check-in system. When I am traveling, I don't want to have to *already* be thinking about the airport 24 hours before flighttime so I can check in early. I know most people love to game systems, but I prefer to game the system by showing up 15 minutes earlier than recommended. That was enough to get a choice boarding pass.

Other complaint is when you are catching a flight in the middle of its run. All the people on longer trips all move to the good seats and leave little for the rabble.

The only time I've had a better flight was that one time I took Independence Air. Planes were Embraer CRJs with seats were in a 1 x 2 configuration, and (at Dulles anyway) they used those outdoor stairs which led into covered walkways. With the other people already lined up waiting. It's a shame they went under- the should have been successful. Also, Dulles is a cool, weird 1960's airport of the Future! Why is this hallway moving?
posted by gjc at 4:49 AM on December 29, 2010

I fly for business quite a bit and I <3 Southwest. Unfortunately, my travel destinations don't line up much with their flight paths, but I do fly with them when I can.

The key thing that is noticeably better is that turn-around-time that everyone else has mentioned above. I have often sat down in a seat on a Southwest plane *that is still warm* from the previous occupant. I have *never* had that happen on any other carrier.

The keys I've found to having a good experience is:
1. Check your bags when possible so you aren't jockying for overhead-bin space, though a lot of people check there bags, so I've rarely had trouble finding space for mine---again, a marked difference from other carriers
2. If you have a C boarding position, make peace with it
3. Take a middle seat up-front when you are flying alone and get a late-B boarding position
posted by chiefthe at 4:53 AM on December 29, 2010

Sphinx: "If I hit a sale, I can buy a one way ticket from Minneapolis to Chicago for $59. That might just be among the leaders in relative price in history to go from MSP to MDW. How much is London to Paris? (A shorter flight than MSP to MDW.)"

One way flights from London to France (and much longer distance flights within Europe) are frequently less than $20 on budget airlines.
posted by turkeyphant at 4:55 AM on December 29, 2010

No assigned seating also means that the gate agents don't have to deal with constant requests to move people to sit together.
posted by smackfu at 5:38 AM on December 29, 2010

I'll preface this with the fact that SW is by far the cheapest, fastest, most predictable direct route from my apartment to my father's home. That alone has endeared them to me.

Most of this is off-topic but ...

Things I hate about other airlines:
- When people line up to get on the plane super early beforehand. Especially because they're almost always late so then we're lined up for even longer. If you already have a seat, why bother? Oh, right, because the overhead is such a premium. With SW, I know exactly where in the boarding group I am. If everyone else lines up early, I can get a magazine and chill out, then casually claim my place in line. It's less stressful.

- The ordeal of trying to see if my husband and I can sit next to each other. We usually fly short flights so we don't really care but when I pick out seats online, it doesn't work or the seats I pick aren't guaranteed, so why bother? We have never had to sit apart on SW. When it has looked like we would have to sit apart, people were willing to move around because they didn't pay to sit someplace specific.

- Feeling nickel-and-dimed. They charge for bags, for certain seats which sometimes means I have to pay extra to sit with my husband. We frequently gets mad when we look for non-SW flights because they add in all of these extra fees. It's not fair and it's dishonest. With SW, what you see is what you get (or at least closer than those other airlines). Even if we need to change our flight, they apply the money you spent on your ticket to a new ticket. It's simple, clear, and fair.

- Cold flight attendants/staff. My grandmother's 87 years old and flew for the first time this year on SW. My aunt told a flight attendant it was her first time and they made an announcement before take-off saying, "We have a celebrity on board!" telling everyone it was her first flight. That was something they didn't have to go and it didn't cost anything but it made my nervous grandma more comfortable. Whenever I call SW, I get a real, helpful person on the phone.

We have gotten in the habit of checking almost exactly 24 hours before the flight. If we do that, we get in the A boarding group. I'm thinking about packing 24 hours before the flight so I can think about checking in. Between my husband and I, one of us can almost always check in about 24 hours before the flight. And if you don't like doing that, again, you can pay to be in the A group.

Most of my family live in areas served by SW except for my sister and SW is coming soon to her. She can't wait.
posted by kat518 at 6:38 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't prefer Southwest (it's great until a plane breaks down, or a crew member gets sick, 'cause there's no slack in the system

Anecdata, huh?

One of the reasons that SWA does well, financially, is their efficiency. They are able to turn around a 737 with half the ground crew - that's cleaning, provisioning, baggage, the works - half the people doing the job. The general boarding system they have now works.

Also, if you make their A-List (which only requires 32 flights a year - that's a light requirement) you're in the A-group all the time, and you also bypass every security and baggage check line there is. Being able to show up for a Friday night flight in PHX 30 minutes before the flight is a Godsend - no waiting in line for anything.

I can see where occasional travelers would find SWA distasteful, but regular business travelers who aren't DoubleGonzoPlatinumEliteDiamondMVP on Delta or AA love them. It's like having a corporate jet.

It will be interesting to see what happens when they fold in the 717 airframes from the Airtran acquisition. Because they will no longer be a 1-airframe airline.
posted by Thistledown at 6:50 AM on December 29, 2010

I just thought of something else... Even though airlines with non-general boarding could make their boarding go much faster, they don't.

I usually fly Delta and I always select an aisle seat. However, no matter where I am on the plane (front or back) I'm always boarding in zone 2 or 3, with several zones behind me. Which means I get on the plane and sit in my aisle seat, but can't fully settle in because the middle and window seats in my row are still empty. I've never understood why they have the outside person board first and make the next two people step over the folks already on the plane. If the seats are all assigned, why not have people get on the plane in the most logical and efficient way possible?

Also, the few times I've flown Southwest I've flown with someone else. I've never had a problem simply asking someone if they wouldn't mind scooting over so we could sit together. People will generally try to be nice to others; don't blame Southwest if you're not going to speak up for yourself.
posted by phunniemee at 7:19 AM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I flew Southwest twice a week for two years and it's hands-down the best airline I've ever flown as long as you understand that they don't care about anything except getting the plane in and out of the gate as quickly as possible. I've been flying Continental 4-8 times/month for the last four years and I really miss Southwest even in the period where I was Platinum and regularly upgraded.

It's an asset utilization business model. It came from the early days when they were trying to figure out how few planes they could have and still keep to the proposed flight schedule. As the first commenter said, the no-assigned-seats thing is one part of a plan to turn the plane around as quickly as possible. Also, it's become part of their thing, so even if they could plan a system where assigned seating wouldn't slow them down, they'd lose a little of their identity. Note that they have actually changed the boarding procedure (from A-B-C to A 1-5, etc.) recently.
posted by MarkAnd at 7:30 AM on December 29, 2010

After watching the ballet of overhead baggage confusion and hearing the flight attendant chastise people (such as ourselves) in later boarding groups as they wandered the cabin trying find seats together near the back of the plane, I'm not sure I agree with you all. But that's just like, your opinion, man.

I can understand that having not experienced it before, it would be frustrating. Maybe it would help to think about it like this: You and Southwest enter into a deal. They will charge you less than any other airline to get to your destination. You will get into a seat as quickly as possible so they can close the door and push back from the gate.

If you don't accept that deal, Southwest is going to drive you insane. Other airlines will almost always be available to fly you to your destination and will grant you (slightly) more control over the experience.
posted by MarkAnd at 7:40 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

As amelioration says the airlines that use the no-assignment system do it to decrease gate turn-around time thereby allowing their planes to be in the air longer each day, and they're only making money when the plane is in the air.

It works for several reasons, most of them already mentioned (basically it gets people to arrive at the airport and the gate earlier). No Frills is an interesting read by UK Travel Journalist Simon Calder. It goes into some detail about this point, and SouthWest tactics in general as it is pretty much the model on which all that follows (RyanAir, EasyJet et al) is based.
posted by jontyjago at 7:45 AM on December 29, 2010

I don't want to have to *already* be thinking about the airport 24 hours before flighttime so I can check in early.

But now, with United anyway, some believe printing out your boarding pass ASAP is necessary in order to get into the better boarding group, to ensure there's available space in the overhead bin. Their boarding group assignment is allegedely back-to-front but I have my own suspicions that the biggest factor is how much you paid for your your ticket.

Count me among those who prefer SWA's egalitarian seating and Darwinian approach to boarding.
posted by Rash at 8:12 AM on December 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. This is fascinating, a bit like hearing from people who feel that thin crust pizza is inferior. Thanks everyone. This is fascinating, a bit like hearing from people who feel that thin crust pizza is inferior. I respect their opinion, no matter that it is clearly wrong, heh heh. Seriously though, my assumption that the boarding process takes longer is probably just confirmation bias. I get that way.

Tomayto/Tomahto, etc.

don't blame Southwest if you're not going to speak up for yourself -phunniemee
Actually, we didn't have to speak up for ourselves because it turned out there were two open adjacent seats near the back of the plane, but we were still made to feel like children. But I suppose the sassy attendants in short pants is actually part of the fun most of the time. Also, it is in their favor that passengers tend to be more gregarious, which rarely happens on other airlines.
posted by palacewalls at 10:05 AM on December 29, 2010

Response by poster: I often repeat myself, too.
posted by palacewalls at 10:05 AM on December 29, 2010

I HATE the general boarding system on Southwest. I check in EXACTLY 24 hours before my flight leaves, reloading the site over and over until it lets me check in, and have actually STILL gotten in the first few B numbers. It breeds hyper competition for checking in right at the 24 hour mark. If you wait much past that 24 hour mark, you're completely screwed, end up in the C group, and are stuck with a random middle seat.

They usually aren't that much cheaper than other airlines to be honest. A flight I'm taking next week showed SWA to be the cheapest through Orbitz, but when I hunted around, I found it for the exact same price on US Airways website, and went with that because they also offered a direct flight to where I am flying.

I'm sure I'm imagining it, but their seat width seems smaller.

But oh, their rewards program. This is what brings me back to flying them, for short non-stop flights at least. Best rewards program of any carrier that I've seen.

I haven't found that the free baggage thing makes people check bags more often. People still try and cram their obviously too large "carry on" baggage into the overhead bins, which slows down the boarding process considerably. I really, really wish they would start enforcing the carry on size restrictions at the gates for all airlines. This is my biggest pet peeve about flying.

posted by BryanPayne at 3:06 PM on December 29, 2010

This won't be a popular opinion either:

Oh, and I'm super glad they changed the whole letting families board before the A group thing. I watched that get super abused all the time. A "family" which would consist of one couple with a couple of kids, and then the aunts, uncles, cousins, whatever, would all come up and board as a family because there were two kids. I didn't care so much about the parents boarding early with the kids, but the rest of the extended family as well? This particular trip, I had paid for the business select fare, which guaranteed first boarding, without having to check in early. This should have pretty much guaranteed an exit row seat, but of course they took them all.

Now families board after the A group. I'm happy with this arrangement. Why should the fact that you have kids make your boarding any higher of a priority than mine?
posted by BryanPayne at 3:32 PM on December 29, 2010

I hate the cattle call. I traveled SW with my child when he was young and we had to do lots of negotiating to end up sitting together. So, I don't fly SW unless there's no other reasonable option.
posted by theora55 at 4:20 PM on December 29, 2010

« Older Is John Nash channeling von Hayek?   |   Need to get a package to Poughkeepsie by Monday! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.