Everybody Get On

Most people who have flown are familiar with the Southwest Airlines “cattle call”. For those who don’t know what it is, I will give a quick explanation.

Southwest doesn’t give assigned seats for their flights, rather they issue a letter to you, A B or C. When you get to the gate, they simply say “group A get on” and that is what happens. Those who check in earlier receive the preferential section and therefore the best shot at getting those invaluable exit row seats. The problem with this was that people would begin lining up hours in advance of the flight. They had separate lines for the A, B and C sections. If you were in the rear of the section A people, there is no shot at the more valuable seats, but at least you could still get an aisle or window.

Southwest has recently tweaked the boarding procedure a bit. They cancelled the idea of letting families board first, as a family who arrived just as the plane was getting ready to board the A section could have their choice of seats first and that caused heartburn with the people who stood in the A line for an hour. There have been a few other tweaks as of late that are explained pretty well here.

I was really surprised when I flew to Portland (from Madison, WI) last week and saw that Northwest had altered its boarding procedure. It isn’t perfect but it is better than what it was. As an aside, I really had no choice but to fly Northwest out of Madison to Portland. We went through Minneapolis (a beautiful airport). For once my flights went pretty well – next week I go to Oklahoma, and we will see what happens there.

So we still all have assigned seats on these Northwest flights. There are, I believe, three pre boarding calls. Those who need extra time such as families and the elderly, then first class, then those who are Elite members or whatever their frequent flyer club is called. These went pretty quick, then they just said “everybody else, get on”. I was totally surprised that it only took an airline 15 years of seeing Southwest eat their lunch on a daily basis for them to make the change. As most of you remember the other airlines always boarded their planes from the rear up to the front.

In addition to this, they started boarding the plane far ahead of when they used to. For a 6.40 flight, we started boarding at 6.00. After just five minutes of pre boarding (thats all three calls – extra time, first class and elite members) that left 35 minutes for everybody else to get on. I timed it – the vast majority of passengers were boarded in just 20 minutes. The only things that really held up the action were those who were too stupid to understand exactly which seat was theirs or those who had carry on luggage that was too large for the overheads. The plane from Minneapolis to Portland was very large too – three seats on each side and approx. 40 rows deep.

Well, I think Northwest will continue this experiment as it seems that it worked out alright. I still hate flying and will do anything I can to avoid it, but any little improvement helps.

*I would be interested to hear from Chicago Boyz readers if the airlines that they use have improved or declined in service as of late.

Cross posted at LITGM.

3 thoughts on “Everybody Get On”

  1. This sounds like a big improvement. I have flown more recently (used to be a road warrior) and they have very complicated boarding groups in United; basically 5-6 groups. I don’t know what all this complexity accomplishes – they still seem like chaos and it takes about the same amount of time to board the aircraft.

  2. I haven’t flown in the past few years but I used to love to fly Southwest because their no frills, no bullsh*t approach appealed to me a deep aesthetic level. Get on the plane, here’s your peanuts, get the hell off the plane. Wam-bam thank you mam never felt so good.

    The entire point of flying is to get from point A to point B quickly and Southwest really seems to have engineered that concept deep into their institutional culture. Other airlines by comparison seemed mired in an era when flying conveyed social status and passengers expected to be treated like first class fops on the Titanic. Its almost as if they built their systems around the idea that, “Its not the destination, its the journey.”

    I confess that I am not sure I would fly Southwest on vacation. I might be welling to spend a bit more on easing myself into a relaxing mindset as I flew to my vacation spot. But when it comes down to getting from point A to point B I don’t think Southwest’s model can be beat.

  3. Two points.

    Years ago before MSM completely tanked, I watched the CEO of SWA on 60 minutes who explained he competed with the bus company not other airlines. Explains a lot.


    Who in the world came up with ‘pre-boarding’? Either you are boarding or you’re not. Someone is getting on, so how can it be ‘pre’?

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