Southwest Airlines has no rule against saving seats
Some regular Southwest Airlines passengers love the company's unique boarding process.
Many appreciate that it's a democratic process that rewards frequent flyers while also enabling people who need to get on early to pay for that privilege.
The airline does not assign seats. Instead, it issues a boarding group and number to each passenger 24 hours before a flight. Some passengers, including top-tier Rapid Rewards loyalty-program members, get checked in automatically before manual check-in begins.
In addition, on most flights the airline sells Early Bird Check-in, which enables customers to pay for early check-in.
Southwest Airlines (LUV) - Get Free Report passengers also can pay to upgrade to the first check-in positions. This is effective if the airline did not sell 15 Business Select seats, which have first rights to those positions.
If you don't have status or pay for any sort of early check-in or designated seating positioning, you have to manually check in 24 hours before your flight. No matter how you check in, when you do (be it automatic or manual) Southwest will give you a boarding group letter (A, B, or C) and a number (1-60).
Southwest boards its planes with the A group first, starting with number 1. Once you board the plane, the airline offers open seating.
That's where the controversy begins.
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Southwest has a seating problem
When you board a Southwest plane you can, in theory, take any open seat. The problem is that many people who get on board try to keep middle seats empty or even save whole rows.
In many cases, the middle seat protection efforts are subtle. People may place a bag or other items on the seat to make it look occupied or to encourage passengers to keep looking.
Usually, if someone asks for the seat, the passenger will move their stuff and allow the other person to sit down. In other cases, people who have an early boarding position will save seats not just for a single traveling companion but sometimes a lot of them.
Surprisingly, the airline's policies don't prohibit that latter effort.
The airline shared its policy in a recent X (formerly Twitter) post:
We regret any disappointment during the boarding process today. All Southwest flights are open seating, and we don't have a specific policy for or against saving seats. Still, we apologize for any frustration and hope for smoother sailing in the future. -Jhericca
— Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) September 21, 2023
Southwest also does not evenly enforce its own rules. In some cases, the airline's flight attendants will stop people from saving more than a seat or two, while in others they allow passengers to take any open seat.
"There’s no rule about saving seats. Southwest doesn’t say it’s ok, but they do not say it isn’t ok. One person with an “A” group boarding pass and Noah’s Ark full of two of each type of passenger with a C boarding pass may wind up with aisle seats or seats together at the front of the aircraft," View From the Wing's Gary Leff posted.
Southwest Airlines has other seating issues
Southwest Airlines also enables passengers who need help boarding to request to board before any other passengers do. The preboarding passengers often legitimately need help, as many of them are in wheelchairs or use walkers.
Some people, however, take advantage of the policy, which has led to the creation of the term "Southwest Miracle." That's when someone needs help to board but has no trouble getting off under their own power.
Preboard passengers can take any seat on the plane except for exit rows. It's a phenomenon that's commonly posted about on social media.
Pre-boarding scam at @SouthwestAir 20 passengers boarding using a wheelchair and probably only 3 need one to deplane.
— Paul (@trendready) June 24, 2023
Southwest, and any airline, will generally not challenge anyone who requests preboarding.
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