Southwest’s EarlyBird does not fly well with irate customers


Grabbing a good seat on Southwest Airlines always took some effort. You had to go online 24 hours before departure to snag a spot at the front of the boarding line. Wait too long and you were doomed to the back of the bus or a dreaded middle seat.

The game has changed for the worse, particularly for families.

Now, passengers can pay $10 each way and jump ahead of the unwashed masses (though not the airline’s most frequent fliers or travelers with pricey Business Select tickets).

Reaction on travel Web sites was overwhelmingly negative. Many scoffed that Southwest, which not long ago mocked competitors for hidden charges, had hopped on the fee bandwagon with both feet.

“Now, if I don’t pay $10 each way, I might get B or C boarding groups even if I check in 24 hours before?” wrote a customer named Matt on Southwest’s blog. “I gave up on Northwest/Delta because they charge you for everything. Looks like Southwest is becoming just another airline.”

Southwest has resisted assigned seating. Letting people pick their seats remains the fastest way to board a plane and get it back in the sky, making money.

The airline pitched EarlyBird as a new product, not a fee for existing service. Business travelers who shunned Southwest for not offering reserved seats are the obvious customers. But the change carries some risk. Southwest won’t limit the number of EarlyBird upgrades sold on any flight. What repeat business will the airline get if a passenger pays $10 and ends up No. 50 in line?

The airline will continue boarding families with kids age 4 and younger after the initial A boarding group, a spokeswoman said. But customers were complaining that families with older kids who don’t pay will get scattered among the last seats.

“If my 7-year-old is sitting by herself because everybody paid the $10, I will be more than upset,” wrote an anonymous poster on the Southwest blog.