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Southwest Is Finally Changing the Way It Boards Flights

The airline is starting a test that could overhaul the entire process.

Few airlines stand out in the same way Southwest does among its competitors. Some customers stay loyal to the low-cost carrier thanks to its reliable service, while others appreciate its low fares and passenger perks like free checked bags. On the other hand, Southwest's famously unique way of getting its passengers onboard is one trait that remains more divisive. But now, the carrier has announced it's finally changing the way it boards some of its flights. Read on to see how the beloved airline could be working towards overhauling the process.

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Southwest has made a few changes this year for the benefit of customers.

Best things to do in Kansas City - family travels
Shutterstock / NicoElNino

The post-COVID travel landscape has been a wild place for both the carriers operating flights and the passengers relying on them to get where they want to go. Even as passenger numbers have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels and ticket sales take off, many airlines are making cuts to routes and changing policies to ensure they're still hitting their bottom line. But Southwest has stood out for some of its decisions in the past few months that could largely benefit its customers.

In May, the carrier announced that it was investing in a $2 billion upgrade to its existing fleet to help improve the passenger experience. The company said it would be updating its onboard WiFi to lure more business passengers, installing power ports in every seat in its fleet's Boeing 737 MAX planes, adding larger overhead bins to simplify the boarding process, doubling the number of movies available for in-flight entertainment, and adding new alcoholic beverage options to its beverage service.

Booking with the carrier has also gotten more convenient. On July 28, Southwest announced that it would become the first major airline to get rid of expiration dates for flight credits. The change allows customers to recoup their money if they ever need to cancel a nonrefundable ticket and use the funds towards a future trip at any point in the future.

And Southwest even made some slight changes to how passengers can board its flights when it launched its Digital Self-Service Upgraded Boarding feature in August. The service allows travelers to purchase an upgrade to the airline's earliest A1-A15 boarding section through the carrier's app or instead of limiting them to doing so in person at the airport. But now, another change is coming to the carrier's embarkation process.

Southwest is testing some changes to the way it boards its flights.

southwest airlines plane taking off
Eliyahu Yosef Parypa / Shutterstock

Traveling as a family can present a unique set of challenges, regardless of which airline you're flying. But those who are familiar with Southwest's system of unassigned seats and boarding by group letter and number know that this can make any group trip with the carrier more challenging to coordinate—especially with kids in tow. On most flights, the airline allows groups with children six and younger to board after the 60 passengers in group A get on the plane to try and secure space seated together.

But now, the company says it's testing out a new system. During their recent Media Day presentation, Southwest announced that families with children six and younger on flights departing from Atlanta Hartfield Airport can board before group A no matter which letter they've been assigned, Beat of Hawaii reports. However, they won't be allowed to sit down in the first 15 rows of the aircraft.

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The airline is trying to cut down on boarding times.

people boarding the plane

According to Beat of Hawaii, the airline says it's hoping to attract more families heading off on vacation. But the company says it's also exploring ways it can reduce the amount of time it takes to board the aircraft.

Southwest, which once advertised a famous turnaround time of 10 minutes to empty and re-board its flights in the 1970s, has seen its average turn times jump as its passenger load grew in the subsequent decades. While the airline is still considered among the fastest in the industry, its turn times have ballooned to roughly 40 minutes in recent years, SimpleFlying reports.

Now, the company says it's turning to data science to tackle the issue and save precious minutes on the tarmac. "It's just not as easy as pulling up another set of stairs to the plane and saying, 'Get off or get on.' There are other opportunities within the turn we need to work on to gain the maximum potential," Steve Goldberg, senior vice president of operations & hospitality for Southwest, recently said, per SimpleFlying.

The move might also be to get ahead of new regulations.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737s in Baltimore

Even though Southwest will likely get plenty of praise from families who will be happy to see the boarding change, there may be more reasoning behind it than just customer convenience and quicker service. On July 8, the Department of Transportation (DOT) sent a notice to airlines requesting that they help ensure all families traveling with children aged 13 or younger should be sat next to a guardian free of charge, Afar reported. And while it's not yet a legally mandated requirement, the federal agency could soon issue a change based on authority granted by a 2016 law passed by Congress.

Other airlines have already taken steps to ensure families or groups traveling together can be seated next to one another. In May, Delta confirmed it would keep its policy in place of blocking solo travelers from booking specific seat assignments by reserving certain rows in the main economy cabin for those traveling in groups of three or more. However, any flyers with platinum or diamond status in the airline's SkyMiles loyalty program will still be able to select those seats no matter how many people are included in their reservations, Travel + Leisure reported.

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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