Flying on Southwest Airlines is “different.”
Today we left Rochester on a 6:35 AM flight on Southwest. Yesterday morning, at 6:35, my wife insisted on getting up and “checking in” to our flight. She said that you needed to check in 24 hours in advance of your flight. I surely didn’t relish the thought of getting up early to do that, and I suggested to her that maybe she was misinterpreting. Maybe they meant that you may check in to your flight 24 hours ahead, but that you certainly didn’t need to do so. She was insistent. After she completed the check-in procedure, she was pleased. She said that we were in an early boarding group. (She explained to me that on Southwest you are not assigned a seat. You board according to your boarding group, and you want an early boarding group so you can find a good seat – and more importantly – claim a space in the overhead bin.)
Today we were at our gate by about 5:30, ready and raring to go. E showed me where we would be lining up to board. This is unlike anything I’ve seen at other airlines. They have two small monitors to indicate where lines are supposed to form. Then, there are stand-up signs with number ranges and arrows. ( <— 1-15; 16-30 —> ) At about 6:00 she left me guarding our luggage while she went to the restroom. (She always heads for the restroom just before boarding, leaving me worried that they’re going to call us to board and she won’t be there. She assured me that there was plenty of time.) No sooner did she leave than they called for group A (that’s us) to line up. They said to line up in front of the monitor that showed your group and number. I watched as people quickly scrambled into line. Based on their quick response, I assumed that there was an advantage to being toward the front of the line. Panic-y, I managed to grab all our luggage and shuffle it over to the appropriate line. I apologized to the people behind me saying, “I hope this isn’t interpreted as cutting in line, but I have to get my wife’s stuff over here for her.”
A few minutes later she returned. She looked around a bit and then informed me that, based on our numbers (A 33 and A 34) we were supposed to be further forward in line. (She indicated the numbered signs that I, until that moment, had failed to fully comprehend.) Then the line began to move. She quickly cut in front of several people.
As we moved into the plane, I was planning to lift her carry-on into the overhead bin for her. That meant that she wanted me in front of her. That meant that I had to select our seats. I knew she wanted a window seat, I knew we needed two seats, and I knew we needed room in the bins for both of our suitcases. I searched for the first set of seats that would meet all these criteria. We ended up about 8 rows back, almost over the wing. By the time we were all settled in, I felt like I had just competed in the first land rush in the Homestead Act.
I don’t like the “open seating” policy that Southwest uses. Now that I understand how it works, I will be better prepared to use it. But give me an assigned seat any day.