How Does Southwest Airlines Issue Boarding Numbers? Sorry, That’s Confidential

Yesterday, despite being a Southwest A-List member, I received my first “B” boarding number. Curious about why this happened — A-Listers are supposed to get the best “A” numbers — I asked Southwest. Sorry, that’s “proprietary” and “confidential” information, I was told.

Wow. Who’d have thought the order that Southwest hands out boarding passes was that big of a secret? And more important, who are they keeping such a big secret from? Perhaps A-List members who don’t get as many early boarding spots thanks to the new fees that fee-less Southwest Airlines now has?

Southwest Airlines Flying Tips from me covers how boarding on Southwest works. It’s a wonderful system, where the lower the number you have (A1 beats A15, A15 beats B34), the earlier you can board and get a good seat. It’s efficient and works well.

That same flying tips article I mentioned also covers how you can get early boarding by purchasing a Business Select fare or by becoming an Southwest Airlines A-List member. After I wrote it, Southwest introduced a new $10 “Early Bird” program that lets you book early boarding for $10. Some people have derided Southwest — which prides itself for not charging fees — as effectively charging an early boarding “fee” through this program.

When the Early Bird program launched, my question was how would that impact the early seating I was supposed to get as an A-List member. Boarding is promised this way:

  • Business Select: Guaranteed A1-A15 spots
  • A-List Members: Promises to “most likely” give you  A-16 through A60 spots
  • Early Bird: Promises to improve your “seat selection” but doesn’t guarantee A-15 through A-60 spots

Now since I joined the A-List program, I’ve typically gotten boarding numbers in the A20s-A30 range. I’ve also been higher or lower than that. It’s worked well. I’ve never had a middle seat. I’ve usually gotten the exact seat I want, even.

But yesterday, I was taken aback. I checked in and got a B1 boarding spot. While I know the A-List program doesn’t guarantee an A spot, I still wondered how this could happen.

In particular, I’d booked my ticket two weeks before I flew. Southwest is supposed to automatically hold my boarding spot when I book. That means when I booked, there were 60 other people who had spots reserved for them. I know that 15 of those spots were held for Business Select people. But the remaining 45? Were there really 45 other A-List people or early bird people who had booked before me on this flight, two weeks before it departed?

Who knows? Well, Southwest does. But as I lead with, they’re not saying. The customer service response I received:

Thank you for your e-mail regarding Rapid Rewards A-List Membership. As a longtime Customer, your concerns are extremely important to us, and we appreciate the opportunity to respond.

We’re so sorry that you did not receive a higher priority boarding pass on your recent flight as one of our valued Rapid Rewards A-List Members. Certainly, we understand that some of our A-Listers are curious to know the method used to assign boarding positions to those who qualify for reserved boarding privileges. Unfortunately, we cannot share this proprietary information as it is considered confidential (and must remain so) in order to maintain our competitive advantage. We apologize for any disappointment.

We truly appreciate your loyalty, and we hope to continue to enjoy the privilege of your patronage. We look forward to welcoming you onboard again soon.

In the end, it just feels weird. None of Southwest’s competitors offer a similar boarding system that I know of. If they do, I find it difficult to believe Southwest would lose a competitive advantage because people could now board the same way on other airlines as they do on Southwest. That hardly seems the primary reason for people to book Southwest flights.

Instead, I’m stuck feeling like the real reason I got a low boarding number is that Southwest is predicting ahead of time how many people it thinks will cough up for early bird boarding and holding those seats back from A-Listers. Maybe there are other reasons. Pity it’s so confidential and proprietary that we can’t know.