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The Southwest Formula
Will it work in Milwaukee? Does it work at all?

Southwest's Boarding Pillars
The term “cattle call” came to mind. Or maybe more appropriately a two-word term unfit for this space that begins with "cluster,"

Southwest Airlines has a boarding and seating policy that is unique in the airline industry. As you prepare to board a Southwest Airlines flight, you are herded into stations depending on your boarding letter and number. Why would the airline do this, you might ask. Everyone has an assigned seat, right? 

Not on Southwest. The Southwest formula is that there are no assigned seats; you sit wherever you want, first come, first served.

The formula is actually a virtual copy of one implemented by a fledgling airline called People Express started in Newark in the 1980’s. People Express tried to make flying fun. In addition to everyone being able to sit wherever they wanted (you paid after you boarded), the flight attendants acted like they were in a comedy club, bantering during the announcements, telling jokes and even giving the mic to passengers so they could join in the fun.

Those were the days.

Southwest doesn’t go quite that far, although their flight attendants are friendlier than most and dress in a more appealing comfortable business-casual attire.

However, there are issues that face a passenger on Southwest in advance of a flight that you don’t find on other airlines. On other airlines, you select your seat when you book your ticket, at which point you have the option of picking a normal seat or paying one of these maddening fees to sit in a “economy comfort” seat, get on early to guarantee that you can stow your carry-on, sit in an exit row, etc. etc.

On Southwest, you don’t have a seat until you board. But there are ways you can increase the likelihood of getting a better one: pay a fee in advance; check in online 24 hours in advance; or get to the airport at the crack of dawn. When you check-in, your boarding pass has a boarding letter and number, indicating what order passengers board. So if your letter and number are low (A1 going first, etc.) you get the best seat. Right?

Not so fast, Eisenhower. There is a subversive movement by relatively frequent Southwest travelers to beat the system. These people hide their boarding passes until they have to surrender them to the gate agent, not allowing any other passengers to see their codes. They claim an early boarding position (“excuse me, I’m A15” I heard one passenger say), give their boarding pass to the gate agent, whom they hope won’t even look at it when they scan it, and board. And gobble up the best seats.

These particular culprits actually had positions in the C range, but were bragging onboard that they saw how to beat the Southwest system on Oprah. Oprah? Is she still even on the air? And what is she doing helping people cut in line? C’mon man!

This becomes relevant to all of us because Southwest is rapidly increasing its presence in Milwaukee. It owns AirTran, and sooner or later will be converting that airline over. And the combination of the two right now has over 50 percent of the traffic out of Mitchell International. 

There are of course really good things in the Southwest formula. Bags fly free, as you’ve heard if you watch any TV at all, so if you’re carting golf clubs and the like, it can save a couple nearly $100 a trip. Fares are generally as low or lower than other airlines, and, again, the service and attitude of the flight crews is terrific.

I’d be very interested to hear from any of you who have flown Southwest as to whether you like it or not. And if you’ve tried, and succeeded, in beating the boarding system. I promise I won’t tell.

As Milwaukee struggles with reduced passenger numbers, fewer direct destinations and a closed concourse, we need to welcome Southwest with open arms. The question is, can we all get used to the formula?


As an epilogue, I’m happy to report that at least some Southwest gate agents are on the lookout for the Oprah watchers. While boarding a recent flight, a friend noticed three would-be-perpetrators line up at the front of the line and try to slip onto the plane first. Not only were they not allowed to board out of turn, they were sent to the back of the line and wound up in the rear of the plane in middle seats.

Isn’t it nice when justice prevails?


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Mippers Posted: 6/7/2013 4:06:40 PM
 0   0    

I have flown Southwest numerous times and really like flying with them. I check in online 24 hours in advance ( you can pay $12.50 extra to be able to check in 36 hours ahead of time) and usually end up in the A50-60 range. From what I understand, they also save the first 15-20 numbers for frequent business travelers so even if you have the number 54, you may not have 53 people in front of you because some of those spots go unfilled.
bblair Posted: 6/7/2013 2:19:53 PM
 0   1    

Have you ever flown Ryanair in europe? In comparison, SW is like the old Midwest Express. On Ryanair there is no method to loading the plane - a pure free-for-all, and they spend the entire flight strolling up and down the aisles selling things. On a positive note, it is pretty festive - flyers know what they're in for...
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