A couple of long-rumored changes to Southwest Airlines boarding policies have been made official this week. Southwest Airlines does not assign seats at all. Passengers board the plane according to boarding numbers that are assigned at check-in and choose their own seats. First to board are always those with special medical needs that may require additional time boarding the plane – primarily those in wheelchairs or with other mobility needs. General boarding proceeds according to the letter and number order assigned to each traveler at check-in. A-List Member frequent flyers and those who purchase Business Select fares are assigned numbers A1-A15. Next up are travelers who purchase EarlyBird check-in. This is where the first of the changes kicks in. The price for EarlyBird Check-in has increased from $12.50 each way to $15 each way. (See my aside at the end of this post for some additional food for thought on EarlyBird check-in).
Between the A Boarding Group and the B Boarding Group, the gate agent will call for “Family Boarding.” This is the second area where Southwest has changed its policies. Until recently, Family Boarding was limited to families who were boarding with children ages 4 and younger. Starting last summer, Southwest experimented with different cut-off points, and they have now settled on age 6 and younger as the new cut-off point for Family Boarding. So if you are boarding a Southwest Airlines flight with children six years old or younger, you can be assured of boarding no farther back than the beginning of the B group. (And it’s hard to imagine a situation where it would be worthwhile for a family flying only with children younger than six would benefit materially from purchasing EarlyBird check-in).
An aside about EarlyBird check-in, which may seem obvious but I learned the hard way: EarlyBird check-in generates boarding pass numbers starting immediately after A-List/Business Select passengers, and continuing in the order that EarlyBird check-in was purchased. Why does this matter? Because if – like me this last time – you purchase EarlyBird check-in just the day before your regular check-in date (in my case, because I realized I would be in a meeting when my check-in time came up), you may find yourself behind a LOT of other EarlyBirds. In my case, even with EarlyBird check-in, I was assigned boarding position C24! It seems that there is no cut-off point after which Southwest stops selling more EarlyBird check-in spots. So the lesson is, if you’re using EarlyBird check-in to try and ensure a boarding position close to the beginning of the process, buy your airfare early and your EarlyBird add-on at the time of ticket purchase!