In the interest of full disclosure, OMAAT earns a referral bonus for anyone that’s approved through some of the below links. These are the best publicly available offers (terms apply) that we have found for each product or service. Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of the bank, credit card issuer, airline, hotel chain, or product manufacturer/service provider, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Please check out our advertiser policy for further details about our partners, and thanks for your support!

Southwest Airlines is different from other airlines in the US. Southwest has a distinctive way of boarding planes. Some people like it and others don't.

After flying Southwest for the first time in years, I wanted to write a post about the boarding process. I will review the flight as such in the next installments.

How boarding works on Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is the only airline that doesn't assign seats. The order of passenger boarding is determined by the position someone is in, as well as the order in which they can pick seats on the plane.

Southwest's boarding process is not always well received. It can get a bit frantic at times, and on the other hand, it is often referred to as a "cattle call." It is more orderly than other airlines.

Southwest assigns boarding positions rather than seats

Southwest Airlines passengers are given boarding positions based on a letter and number.

  • You’ll either be in group A, B, or C, with A being allowed to board first, B being allowed to board second, and C being allowed to board last
  • You’ll be given a specific number within that range, which determines the order in which you can board within each group

The person with the highest number on the flight can board first, while the person with the lowest number can board last. Southwest has a person-by- person priority for boarding, unlike other airlines.

Southwest Airlines has a unique boarding process

The logistics of boarding Southwest flights

Most airlines have a mob that storms the gate when boarding is about to begin. Southwest's boarding process is quite nice. Each of Southwest's gates has a number listed on them. There are two numbers on the left side and one on the right side. The signs show where you should stand based on your boarding position.

Southwest Airlines boarding gate
Southwest Airlines boarding gate

This setup can hold up to 60 people with 30 on each side. The monitors at the front of the line show whether groups A, B, or C are boarding. Group C will be able to hold up to 60 people once they are boarding.

Southwest Airlines boarding gate

The exact area where your number is is where you will line up. If group C boarding starts and you are assigned position C2, you should be in the 1-5 section. It is customary to ask those around you what their position is, so you can be sure you are in the correct place.

Southwest Airlines boarding gate

There isn't a rush or panic unlike on some other airlines. You don't need to wait in line before boarding. If you line up a few minutes before boarding starts, you'll be in the right line. Don't line up until your group is boarding. If you're in group C, don't get in line until group A and group B are completely boarded.

Southwest Airlines family boarding & more

We are used to airlines offering to pre-board families, but how does Southwest Airlines do that?

  • Southwest allows family boarding between groups A and B; this allows up to two adults traveling with a child six years old or younger to board at this time, assuming they’re not already in group A
  • Southwest allows active duty US military (with a valid ID) to board between groups A and B, assuming they’re not already in group A
  • Southwest allows those requiring extra time to board between groups A and B, ahead of family boarding, assuming they’re not already in group A

The intent is to give these passengers the chance to sit together, but only after the first set of passengers board, and they can get the best seats.

Those in wheelchairs can't board before group A. Many of the best seats are occupied by people in wheelchairs.

How Southwest boarding positions are determined

Southwest Airlines' boarding priority is determined when you check in. If you want to get the best boarding position, you need to check in online immediately. Your boarding priority will be worse the closer you check in.

The best way to get upgraded boarding is to check in early. It doesn't mean you'll have a great boarding position just because you check-in the same day. I checked in advance to make sure I was assigned position B16. 75 people had higher priority than I did.

If that is your goal, you will almost certainly be able to avoid a middle seat if you check in on time.

If you travel with others but don't have a boarding group, you can either board separately or with the lower priority. You can't have someone else board with you. Southwest doesn't allow other people to reserve seats.

Southwest Airlines boarding gate

How to secure early boarding on Southwest

It's a good idea to check in 24 hours out to get a decent boarding position. If the goal is to get a seat in the exit row, how do you get it? There are a few things that need to be considered.

  • If you purchase a Business Select fare (Southwest’s most premium fares), this automatically comes with A1-15 boarding
  • If you have Southwest Rapid Rewards A-List status, you’ll receive a boarding position immediately behind Business Select, so you can expect it to generally be in the A16-A30 range
  • You can pay for EarlyBird Check-In, where Southwest will automatically check you in 36 hours before departure; while this should get you a good boarding position (almost always in zone A), note that it doesn’t guarantee a specific boarding priority, as you’re behind Business Select customers and A-List members
  • The day of departure you can purchase upgraded boardings in positions A1-15, subject to availability; note that this will only be available if all the Business Select fares weren’t purchased

If you have co- branded Southwest Airlines credit cards, you may be able to get early boarding.

Southwest Airlines doesn’t assign seats

Is Southwest’s boarding process awesome or awful?

Southwest Airlines' boarding process seems to be hated by some people. I'm going to share my take on that based on a few factors.

Southwest’s boarding is surprisingly orderly

Southwest's boarding process is often referred to as a "cattle call," but in my experience it is one of the most organized boarding processes in the world.

People crowd the gate area when it isn't their turn to board. At Southwest, everyone has an exact spot where they are supposed to be, and that makes it less crowded.

Since there is a learning curve to understanding this compared to other airlines, I am surprised by how orderly the Southwest boarding process is. It shows you that Southwest has a lot of loyal customers.

Southwest boarding is surprisingly orderly

I don’t like not having an assigned seat

The boarding process is pretty organized in the gate area, but I find it to be a different experience once onboard. The open seating concept is supposed to speed up boarding, but it doesn't match my experience on the flight.

There were a lot of people trying to sit in the back of the plane and then coming back up to find seats. The crew wanted to have a mother and daughter sit together, so they offered free drinks to anyone willing to move. Several people tried to reserve seats but were told they couldn't.

If a flight is full, being able to sit anywhere can become a game of musical chairs.

Everyone has the same chance of getting an aisle or a window seat if they check in early. I prefer that airlines don't charge for economy seats.

I prefer knowing where I will be sitting so that I can plan my flight. If I'm in a middle seat, I'll probably just load entertainment on a personal device, but if I'm in the middle seat, I'll try to work the whole flight.

People either love or hate Southwest’s boarding

Southwest Airlines has a different way of boarding. The airline has open seating and allows passengers to board in a specific order.

Southwest's boarding process is quite organized and some people like it. Many people don't like not having an assigned seat and find it to be chaotic once onboard.

Southwest has a boarding process. Are you a fan or critic of it? Is there any tips I didn't know about?