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Southwest Online Checkin: Rigged?

I recently had to check in at the Southwest Airlines to get an online boarding pass. A few years ago this was a relatively unsurprising annoyance. Now, it's gotten downright weird.

It used to be that if you timed it right, and got in exactly, precisely 24 hours and 0 minutes and 0 seconds prior to departure time, you could click and print and you'd find that you not only were in boarding group "A" but had a very low number, sometimes single digit. The number never meant anything -- they were always ignored at the gate. What mattered was that you were in group A.

But if you really wanted first dibs on seat choices, say, you preferred the extra legroom of the wing exit seats, then you not only had to pull the 24-hour-prior web stunt, but you had to get to the airport extra early, and be ready to stand at the front of the A line oftentimes long before anyone else -- passengers, gate personnel -- even showed up. if you were that determined, you could get your choice of seat.

(Of course, sometimes you'd discover all that work was for naught: the Southwest flight you'd booked turned out to be a connecting flight, and you'd enter the plane only to find a bunch of passengers, typically disheveled, tired, and eager to continue their journey, taking up many seats already, including, inevitably, all the wing exit seats.)

Fast forward to now. Southwest no longer just checks what boarding group you're in. Now there's a position number within that group. And here's where it gets suspicious. The last few times I've done the exact 24-hour-prior thing with SWA's website, I had a separate browser window with time.gov's official atomic clock running, so I could be fairly confident of the exact time. I'd have pre-entered the confirmation number and first name and last name so all I'd have to do is click at the right moment, and then land on the next page just as the clock struck whatever. And then there'd be the mad hand/eye coordination rush to click the checkbox in the list (stupid and unnecessary if there's only one item in the list and it's your one fight) and then click the button to actually print out the boarding pass. The goal is to click that print button as fast as possible. And you know what? It's no longer like the old days. Now, within perhaps four seconds of the exact 24-hours-prior mark, clicking the print button gets you a boarding group A pass, but you see a position number that's very high, like 60, in my most recent experience.

Which makes me wonder: I simply do not believe that 59 people in San Diego were up at the right time of the early morning doing the same 24-hours-prior trick as I, within the first 3.9 seconds of the appointed hour. I just don't believe it. In this day and age, Occam's Razor suggests far more obvious explanations:

  • Southwest pre-determines your boarding group position by how much you paid for the ticket, or
  • Southwest conducts some sort of real-time random lottery and even though I got position 60, someone checking in minutes later might get position 10
  • There be sniping bots. Bot scripts that automatically go in and grab stuff faster than any human can even if they're the fastest mouse clicker in the, er, southwest. Here's a blog dedicated to the fine art of Southwest sniping.
  • Or perhaps Southwest prioritizes its Rapid Rewards customers, or Business Select customers, and they always get first dibs? Even if they haven't checked in but you have?

UPDATE. Ok, I did a little more digging and this blog post has the most likely explanation. A1-A15 are reserved for Business Select customers. A16-A60 are for "A List" members (related to their Rapid Rewards program). And then there's Souwthwest's Early Bird program where, you got it, you pay a $10 fee to get an additional 12 hours' advantage over other suckers, er, customers, to complete your online checkin -- but there are no guarantees and you may still wind up with A60.

Bottom line: Southwest's boarding practices are the major reason I deeply dislike the airline. They put all the burden on the customer and still the customer winds up losing. They've strayed so far from the original gimmick that they now require fees and other tricks that just make the whole game too annoying to play. I wish they would abandon the entire practice and just let people go to the website and click on the seat they wish and get it reserved just like most other airlines.

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