Southwest to Test Boarding Families First

It’s a very limited trial, but it offers some hope to families who worry about being able to sit together due to the carrier’s open seating policy.

Families flying out of Atlanta this month, may get a welcome surprise on Southwest.

Families flying out of Atlanta this month may get a welcome surprise on Southwest.

Photo by Vander Films/Unsplash

For traveling families, there are two schools of thought when it comes to the ideal time to board a flight. Some families like to get into their seats as early as possible and get the kids situated before the plane starts to fill up and is harder to navigate. Others prefer to wait a bit and let the little ones get the last of their wiggles out in the airport before they are confined to a small space for a prolonged period.

But when it comes to Southwest Airlines, the issue is more complicated because of the airline’s long-standing policy of no assigned seating. Instead, Southwest gives passengers a boarding position. There are three boarding groups—A, B, and C—and up to 60 or so positions within each group. So, passengers are given a boarding position like A37 or B12. Once group A has fully boarded, it’s time for group B, and so on. Once on board, travelers choose whatever seats are available.

Southwest’s current family boarding policy allows adults traveling with children ages six and younger to board after group A and before group B, regardless of what position they hold. (Of course, if they hold positions in group A, they should board then for earlier and better access to seats.) But what this means is that it could still be a bit tricky for some families to find seats all together depending on how many people are in group A and/or how many families are boarding (potentially ahead of your own). With no preassigned seats, a family intent on sitting together wouldn’t want to wait to get on the flight. They need to get on as early as possible to nab adjacent seats—something the carrier is looking into helping them do.

During a media presentation in Dallas this week, Southwest said that it is planning a week-long trial in mid-December that will allow families traveling together to board before group A at four departure gates in Atlanta, industry newspaper Travel Weekly reported. Those families would be required to sit behind row 15 on the aircraft.

When asked about the trial, a Southwest spokesperson confirmed to AFAR that “altering the boarding process for families, which will be tested soon at one innovation station in our network, was mentioned as one idea, of many, in a larger discussion about evaluating the efficiency our boarding process.” An “innovation station” is a term Southwest uses for an airport where it is trying out new programs and ideas.

While the spokesperson added that testing boarding families first “is not an indication of a forthcoming policy change,” it could offer a glimmer of hope to families who are concerned about jostling for seats together when flying Southwest.

Ensuring that children under the age of 13 are able to sit next to a family member at no additional cost recently became a priority for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which earlier this year issued a notice to the airlines asking that they do everything they can to allow children to be seated next to an accompanying adult—free of charge.

The DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection issued the notice on July 8 and stated that within the next four months (or by early November), it would start monitoring the airlines to see if they have actually made strides to ensure that families are seated together at no extra cost. The agency noted that it will decide whether regulatory action will be required “to ensure airlines’ seating policies and practices are not barriers to a young child being seated next to an adult family member or other accompanying adult.”

The DOT offers several suggestions for making sure families have seats together, including knowing the carrier’s family seating policy, booking as early as possible to have access to the widest selection of seats, avoiding basic economy and ultra-low-cost fares that typically don’t include the option to select a specific seat, and contacting the airline directly about sitting the family together. (Families traveling with a lap child should also contact the airline make sure the lap child is on the reservation.)

Because the Southwest trial is extremely limited, there are several ways to secure a more advantageous boarding position in the meantime for families who want to improve their chances of sitting together on Southwest. One option is to buy EarlyBird Check-In. For $15 per flight per person, fliers will be able to check in before the 24-hour check-in window, improving their chances of grabbing a spot in the coveted group A. If you want better odds, you can pay $30 per person, per flight for Upgraded Boarding, which will allow you to upgrade 24 hours before the flight to a boarding position between A1 and A15 (depending on availability).

Customers who purchase Business Select or Anytime fares, or those who have A-List Preferred or A-List status with Southwest’s frequent flier Rapid Rewards program, will automatically get a reserved boarding position 36 hours prior to departure but will still need to check in within 24 hours to retrieve a boarding pass.

For everyone else, download the Southwest app and just click like the wind exactly 24 hours prior to boarding. (We know travelers who set timers on their phones to do this and “beat out” their fellow fliers for a good boarding position—it can and does work a good deal of the time, but it’s definitely no guarantee.)

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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