I remember the first time I flew on Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE:LUV)
. The seating was like nothing I had ever seen before. I didn't understand why everyone was lining up so early, and then when they explained the open seating, I figured it out and was left standing at the back of the line.
While other airlines had customers choose their seat paying extra for first class seats, Southwest was a refreshing change from the normal way of doing things. Unfortunately, as the company has grown, Southwest is becoming like their competition -- and that's not a compliment.
The airline industry has its share of problems to overcome already. Southwest faces a host of competitors from smaller airlines like JetBlue Airways Corporation (NASDAQ:JBLU)
to larger well known competitors like Delta Air Lines, Inc. (NYSE:DAL)
and United Continental Holdings Inc (NYSE:UAL)
. The unpredictable nature of oil prices can cause carriers to raise fares in short order. The additional security measures that have been adopted since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are necessary, but add a level of inconvenience that didn't exist before.
Baggage fees have become a hot topic, with companies like United and Delta charging $25 for one bag and $35 for an additional bag. JetBlue allows you one bag free, but the second one will cost you $40. Southwest has stayed above the fray by allowing two checked bags for free. The company even ran a series of successful commercials about their competition's bag fees. While the company has not changed this policy, there is a disturbing change in the culture of boarding passengers, and Southwest needs to make a choice to clarify their intentions.
The company recently announced that they would begin allowing passengers to pay $40 extra to be one of the first 15 to board the plane
. The company already offers the ability to pay $10 extra for the privilege of using their Early Bird Check-In system, and there are other ways to get on the plane first as well. If a customer purchases a Business Select Fare, or if they are Rapid Rewards Members with A-List or A-List Preferred status
, they get preferential boarding. All of these exclusions from the norm causes a problem. In fact, according to the article I linked above, the company's, “boarding practices are unusual enough compared to other airlines that they have an online tutorial.”
For a company that used to pride itself on its wacky and unpredictable spirit, this pay-for-where-you-sit idea sounds like most airlines, but Southwest needs to make this official. There is nothing wrong with customers who pay more getting preferential treatment. If you pay more you get better seats at sporting events. Customers with more money in a financial institution are likely to enjoy special rates or benefits. Higher-value clients come first in nearly any business. Southwest needs to change to traditional ticketing and seating and avoid ugly situations later on.
Under the current system, customers who want to sit together have no guarantee of that happening. In addition, families who used to have preferential boarding now are boarded after the A group. This causes some uncomfortable situations where passengers have chosen their seat and have to move to accommodate special circumstances. Other airlines don't have these issues.