Yesterday, on my return flight home from Tennessee, I got to thinking about seating. And particularly about seating on Southwest flights.
Southwest is my favorite airline. It’s usually a little cheaper, with fewer delays, more direct flights, free bag check, it’s unionized yet profitable, and it is responsible for the deaths of zero people.
I also like that Southwest is not in the puddle-jumper business: It flies only one kind of plane, the Boeing 737, meaning crews are all familiar with the layout, the repair costs stay low, and there’s greater flexibility if planes need to be swapped.
The personalities of the Southwest flight attendants (or FAs as they say on the message boards) seem to largely dictate the tone of the flight in a way that feels far less canned than on airlines like American, so that if one of the FAs self-identifies as funny, they will try to be funny. And if they don’t, they’ll just be nice. I appreciate the way a FA’s folksy intercom jokes greases the wheels of our interaction, but I’m also glad it doesn’t happen every time. You can tell when a corporation allows an employee to also be a person.
So there’s lots to praise about the airline’s intuitive simplicity, and often included is praise for Southwest’s open seating policy. In his Slate article celebrating Southwest, Seth Stevenson writes, “Southwest also doesn’t assign seat numbers. Which means that if a plane is swapped out, and a new one’s brought in with a different seat configuration (even within the world of 737s, there can be some variations), there’s no need to adjust the entire seating arrangement and issue new boarding passes. Passengers simply board and sit where they like,” and then Stevenson moves on to the next thing as if it’s just that simple.
The truth is: It’s not simple at all. And it’s getting less simple all the time.
In case you don’t fly Southwest, it works like this: You buy your ticket online. Then, when your flight is exactly 24 hours away, you “check in” online and your place in the line to get on the plane is based on the order in which you check in. Everybody wants to be ahead in the line to be sure to get a window or aisle, to sit by your friend, to sit close to the front, and to have room in the overhead compartment, so people (my wife especially) tend to get really good at timing it out to exactly 24 hours beforehand to be in the coveted A-group (made up first of businesspeople and hot shots—my dad told me of once flying with a university president who was A1, the MVP of the plane) or at least early in the B-group.
Haters of the open seating policy use the word “cattle” when describing it (because adults tend resent being asked to line up—it makes us feel less like special individuals and more like the animals we are), but the system works fine unless you’re uninitiated like E Moore, who complained, “My family and I were given apparent “seat numbers” on our tickets, which actually just mean the order in which you line up at the gate, and the seating was actually open (and poorly organized I might add). I did not purchase the tickets personally and did not know about the open seating policy, so I thought someone was in my seat and told a flight attendant about it. She stared at me like I was crazy.” But there are no letters/numbers on the seats, so I have no idea how this person identified his or her seat. I am tempted to call E Moore a Big Dummy, but will here show heroic restraint.
Where were we?
In September of 2009, Southwest stumbled onto a huge moneymaker for themselves, upsetting the open seating policy’s delicate balance with the EarlyBird Check-In system, framing it of course as a godsend for those passengers who are enemies of hassle: “Don’t race,” said the announcement, “We’ll save your place! Southwest is proud to announce its newest product, EarlyBird Check-in, which gives Customers the option to score an early boarding position by adding an additional $10 to the price of a one-way fare. The low-cost service automatically reserves a boarding position for Customers prior to general check-in, allowing EarlyBird Customers to begin boarding the plane after Southwest’s Business Select and Rapid Rewards A-List Customers.”
So now you could pay $10 and get ahead in line, just those with rich people passes on ski lifts. Fine. But immediately people began to game the system: “I recently paid $10 each for my wife and I to do the early boarding on Southwest,” said one guy. “However when we tried to take two seats together, another passenger was apparently holding five seats for his friends (guess he didn’t think the other friends should have to pay the $10 fee). “
Here’s another: “My husband and I boarded the flight with our daughter only to find that there were not three seats anywhere near each other. We did find two seats so I could sit with my daughter, but the closest we could find for my husband was back a few rows. We asked many, many people if they would give up a seat so that we could all three sit together, and no one would move. The flight attendants said they were not allowed to request that people move so that families can sit together, so they did nothing to help us. That three hour plus flight with my baby was the worst flight of my life and I vowed to never take my family on Southwest again. However, I continued to fly with them years later when I began traveling for work, and flights with them as a single person were always problem free.”
Finally, a longer one that really gives itself the space to be the rant it needs to be: “So as part of our vacation treat to ourselves, we bought the priority A upgrade for our trip home at a cost to our family of five of $50, and we were assigned boarding priority A53 through A57. However, and here’s where I get to my point, finally, when we boarded the airplane, several people who’d boarded before us had saved entire rows of seats for their family or friends or whomever the hell they thought were entitled to sit next to, WITHOUT THOSE PEOPLE HAVING TO PAY THEIR FAIR FARE SHARE!! These assholes had thrown down jackets and 737 Emergency Briefing cards and SkyMall magazines into seats to selfishly reserve them… WHO the hell do these people think they are? Where do they get off thinking they have any sort of right to treat other people this way? But I think we all know who they are. They are the people who don’t merge into a long line of traffic to, say, get onto the expressway, but simply cut someone off at the last moment. They are the same people who cut in into the Bag Check line when trying to get into Wrigley Field. They are the same people who, when a new lane opens at the grocery store, even though they are last in line, will beeline it over there when the cashier says, “I can take the NEXT person in line.” These are the people who for some reason believe they are entitled to priority treatment and don’t give a damn that they are being rude and unfair and self-centered. I mean, WTF? Where do they get this sense of self-entitlement? How? When do these jerks decide it’s okay to behave this way?”
So if your eyes glazed over there, the problem is that individuals were paying the $10 and then saving seats for 1-4 more people who were boarding much later, meaning all the good spots got nabbed up by people who were not yet on the plane (or did not exist at all in a bid for mad leg room). There are lots of these stories, almost exclusively told by the wronged party who paid their money and expected a good seat. And when they complained to a Southwest FA, they got noncommittal shrugs and were basically told to work it out for themselves.
But were the seat-savers doing anything wrong? Were the FA’s wrong not to step in?
According to HuffPost blogger George Hobica, YES, who upon hearing about it for the first time, said that “this is pretty outrageous” and told the person who asked about it, “You should have contacted a flight attendant immediately and had this jerk put in his place (maybe off the plane would have been a good place — exit, stage left! — where you wouldn’t have had to endure his “glares”).” But George didn’t do his research: The FA would have done nothing.
Time to run and get teacher, which is just what one of our friends on the FlyerTalk message board did. Here was his/her reply:
Thank you for taking the time to contact us. We appreciate the opportunity to address your concerns.
As you probably know, all flights on Southwest are “open-seating,” and Customers are free to take any available seat onboard the aircraft. In light of this, it is not uncommon for a Customer to want to reserve a seat (or seats) for a friend, family member, or associate who will be boarding behind them.
Truthfully, we don’t have a policy either way—for or against—saving seats. In fact, we share our perspective on this issue on southwest.com as follows: “because Southwest Airlines maintains an open-seating policy, general-boarding Customers may sit in any open or unclaimed seat.” With this in mind, as long as there is no Safety concern, it would be acceptable for a Customer to “claim” a seat for his/her family member or traveling companion who may be in a later boarding group. We are aware that the saving of seats is a by-product of our policy, and as long as the boarding process is not delayed and other Customers aren’t inconvenienced, it usually isn’t a significant issue.
Again, we appreciate your contacting us. We look forward to welcoming you onboard a Southwest flight soon.
Marco, Southwest Airlines
Yes, it turned out that Southwest had just one seat-saving policy: NO SEAT-SAVING POLICY.
Which means that it is up to us, the customers, to figure it out. I am not sure whether to call the non-policy democratic or anarchic.
And while it seems like a coup for the seat-savers, the policy could also embolden those who choose not to recognize seat-saving. Here’s what srk124 did: “Last week, I got on a plane and the guy in the exit row (11) was sitting in the window seat, saving the entire 3-seat row. I went to sit in the aisle seat, he challenged me on this saying his wife and aunt were sitting in the two saved seats. I asked him if they were on the plane, and he said they were coming. Since I was on first, I took the aisle seat, and got into an argument with him, but I refused to move. I told him if he wants to save 2 seats, go to a regular row in the back of the plane and he wouldn’t have anyone challenge him. He called me a jerk, and I responded accordingly. He finally got up and left, used a word I can’t use here, and moved 2 rows back and saved that row, and two other people took the two available exit row seats. I looked back during the flight, and he was sitting in that window seat with his wife (apparently) in the aisle and no one in the middle seat, which he also saved to prevent someone from occupying the middle seat. No “aunt” in sight. No FA ever got involved in our situation, but I would have also held firm with her (or him) if I would have gotten a “no real policy” reply.”
Then much of the discussion turned to a battle of Those Who Believe Families Should Get to Sit Together No Matter What and the Rights of the Individual types.
reheadtempe33: I certainly appreciate that you would want to sit next to your family (especially with young children), but for those that it is important, there are many airlines out there, that allow you to choose your seat assignment ahead of time. Fly them.
texashoser: And I could say the same thing to you. If you don’t want to fly an airline that allows seat saving, fly an airline that assigns seats. If you have status with that airline or pay extra money for a certain seat, you are guaranteed that seat.
srk123: If you see someone saving a “premium” seat that you want, just take it. You’ll be in the right and just shrug off any attitude that the person who tries to save the seat gives you. The FA may be indifferent about it, but shouldn’t remove you from your seat.
azgrunge: Not true. Some FAs allow seat saving. I never have an issue with it given I am AL+ and when I save it is for my CP. Not my fault LUV doesn’t have an official plan. The FAs always say the appreciate travelers like us as we keep them in business. I did have an FA say I couldn’t do it once and I honored their request; since LUV didn’t make the rules, the FAA says I have to follow the FAs as does everyone else.
texashoser: Lots of hard hearts on the board. God forbid you guys ever need a little courtesy extended your way. Don’t be surprised when it isn’t.
plagwate: Since you’re such a giver, let’s apply your generosity a little differently. Let’s say you’re on a non-stop cross-country trip. Knowing that WN only provides modest snacks and beverage service, you plan ahead and pack a lunch. Along comes the family of four who have made no provisions to feed themselves or their hungry little rugrats. Do you feel obligated to share your lunch since this family didn’t have the foresight to bring lunch on-board? At what point should people be held responsible for their lack of planning?
texashoser: I’m not saying anyone is obligated to move seats, etc. But karma and courtesy go a long way as tumustbjokim pointed out.
pinworm: Karma is an irrational religious belief in some kind of universal providence. Helping someone out or not has no bearing on future events and there is no evidence that actions are judged by the universe and justly rewarded.
umustbjokim: Irrational it may be – call it “pay it forward” if you like. All I know is, while I can convince myself I feel better when I demand all that I believe is due me(e.g. the seat someone is saving for their SO), I actually do feel better when I do something that benefits someone else. Self-fulfilling karma?
pinworm: I feel better when I belive in Unicorns..feeling better doesn’t legitimize magical thinking.
I love this discussion. (Plagwate really takes it to the next level with his/her tangential “feed the hungry” scenario.) It raises so many questions, none of which I will answer:
– Do romantic partners have a right to sit beside one another?
– What rights do members of a family have that, say, friends do not?
– Do parents of a 5-year-old have a right to sit with their child?
– Do parents of a 10-year-old have a right to sit with their child?
– Do parents of a 15-year-old have a right to sit with their child?
– Does a corporation have an obligation to settle the disputes of its customers?
– Does a corporation have the right to profit from a policy that incites animosity among customers?
– Does a corporation have an obligation to protect its meeker customers from its asshole customers?
– How kind should a person be?
Okay, well, maybe I’ll answer one of them: It’s pretty chickenshit of Southwest to institute a profitable policy that makes people so mad at each other and then say, “Hey, I’m staying out of it!” Just decide on a policy, one way or the other, and then only enforce it in the case of big disputes.
The solution that the greatest number of people on the message board agreed on: Everybody gets a +1 on the seat directly beside them. That seems fine.
But as much as I like teasing out the “civilization in miniature” of the non-policy, none of this would keep me from choosing Southwest over the others. American Airlines recently sneaked a $50 per ticket bought-over-the-phone charge onto our total price when my wife called them to set up a compassion rate after my grandmother passed away. American acted like they were doing us such a favor at a time of need while reaching into our pocket, and didn’t even mention the charge while we were on the phone. What scumbags.
Southwest’s failings, by comparison, are more sociological than monetary, more interesting than enraging.
And as Louis CK says in his “everything is amazing” bit, “Flying is the worst one because people come back from flights and they tell you your story and it’s like a horror story – they act like their flight was like a cattle car in the forties in Germany – that’s how bad they make it sound. They’re like “it was the worst day of my life. First of all, we didn’t board for twenty minutes, and then we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway for forty minutes we had to sit there.” Oh really what happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight you non-contributing zero?! You’re flying! It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going “oh my God! Wow!” You’re flying! You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky! [laughs] But it doesn’t go back a lot. And it’s not really – Here’s the thing – people like they say there’s “delays” on flights. “Delays” really? New York to California in five hours – that used to take thirty years to do that and you thought you would die on the way there and have a baby. You’d be a whole different group of people when you got there. Now you watch a movie, take a dump and you’re home.”
This I am thankful for. But that’s so last week.