Southwest Dilutes Cattlecall Again – Offers Priority Checkin

By | September 2, 2009
Southwest boarding
Image by drewgstephens via Flickr

This morning, Southwest Airlines announced it would offer an early check-in option for a $10 fee.

For years, the Southwest Cattle Call offered a first-come/first-served option. Plastic cards were offered at the counter in order of check-in, and people lined up and boarded in check-in order. Then, when online check-in became more prevalent, the plastic cards were replaced with printed boarding passes with a letter indicating a boarding group of A, B, or C.

Then Southwest adopted the current boarding system, which put passengers into an A, B, and C group, and specified a number order to those groups, but allowed people who bought a Business Select fare to get priority boarding. Now, that made some sort of sense. It allowed people who paid a significant premium to board first. It didn’t seem as egalitarian as the previous system, but Southwest needed to make compromises to attract business customers, and we could accept that too.

Now, EarlyBird Check-In allows a reserved spot, but it has a few limitations. For one…if an unlimited number of people can pay the fee, then each person doing it devalues it, and no limit is put on the number. Ryanair, an airline we never miss a chance to criticize, has a priority boarding fee. We thought Southwest was different. This suggests that families wanting to sit together will be pressured into paying the fee.

Early Bird Check-In will be prioritized in order of purchase. It means that you could pay the $10 and still end up with a low number if a lot of people pay the same fee. We would remove our objection if the airline caps the number of priority spots available per flight to a reasonable percentage of the overall aircraft, or gives you some indication as to the point that so many people have paid as to determine the value of paying it. They can also hand out the occasional reward coupon for free Early Bird Check-In as a promotional item.

Essentially, the whole situation is a mixed bag of peanuts. Based on the information we have now, the implementation needs refining. If so, it can be a reasonable option to offer, instead of how many are seeing it…a dilution of what makes Southwest unique.

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