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.


  1. says

    As an A-lister, I’ve looked at the process alot (like Danny has). The A-list promises to hold your spot…but it’s also holding spots for all of the other A-listers booked in the flight. If there are alot of other A-listers on your flight then you’d better be sure to check in as early as possible to beat out the rest of the A-listers.

    If you were on a popular “commuter” flight like SJC-SNA there’s a chance that there were also a bunch of other A-listers also on that flight. If they started checking in 24 hours in advance then A-15 – A-60 can fill up pretty fast.

  2. says

    Maybe that’s it — there were a lot of regular A-List commuters already on this particular flight who’d booked it long before. That’s what threw me. I could see getting a low number if I’d just booked it. But to my understanding, when you book, you also get your boarding number reserved at the same time. So booking ahead two weeks, I figured I should have a higher number. Wish Southwest would just explain, though.

  3. says

    My understanding is that you don’t actually get your boarding number until you check in – Southwest just reserves enough slots (starting with A-15 up to however many A-Listers there are) so that each A-Lister gets one…but they’re not assigned until you actually check in.

    It would be nice if Southwest explained it…but we’ve (sort of) figured it out by trial and error.

    The key is – even with A-List status you’ve got to check in as early as possible. It’s not been necessary to pay the extra $10 to check in 36 hours in advance though. It is unclear if those folks jump ahead of the A-listers…although I don’t think so. Checking in (as an A-Lister) as close to 24-hours in advance as possible has rarely yielded a boarding position past A-24.

  4. says

    See, that’s where it’s confusing. Southwest says this:

    “Southwest Airlines will ‘reserve’ boarding passes for A-List Members, but Members will still be responsible for “printing” their boarding pass starting 24 hours prior to flight time.”

    So are they reserving your spot when you book? That’s how it reads. But I can see that they’re reserving a group of seats but not assigning them until you check in. Except how do they do that? They have no idea how many A-Listers they have on any particular flight until the last minute (though they do say you have to book at least 36 hours in advanced to have premium boarding services confirmed).

    I think I’ve seen the same. The earlier I check in, even as an A-Lister, the better spot I get. Yesterday, I checked in probably 12 hours before my flight. I should have remembered sooner.

    But still, I wish they’d make it clear. If they’re holding a spot for me when I book, as they say, what exactly does that mean :)

  5. says

    Yeah, Tom, I’ve actually describe Southwest as a bus I love in another post. I get that. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable for them to explain how boarding numbers are assigned. Calling it confidential? I think you’re telling the wrong entity to relax.

  6. mark says

    I paid the extra 10 and my # is A36…This is for a flight that was booked 4 months ago. I usuall received higher numbers before paying extra for early bird seating.

  7. Jack Macica says

    I’m not an A-lister, but I just checked in at exactly 24 hours by clicking back and forth until it didn’t tell me I was too early. So it was within seconds of the earliest check in time and I got B45! What is up with that?

  8. Dan Banks says

    Southwest should fly wider planes with 3 aisles so we can all have an aisle seat. That would be just about perfect!

  9. Michael Lebowitz says

    So I was able to get a better understanding of how the boarding pass #’s are issue for A-List & Early Board passengers. The system will generate the boarding pass 36 hours prior to the flight. The system will treat A-List members and Early Bird passengers equally. Then it will first look at when the ticket was purchased.
    Example 1 – Passenger A (not on A-List) purchases a ticket on March 1 and pays extra for early bird. Passenger B (no A-List or Early Bird) purchases ticket on March 4. Passenger C (A-List member) purchases ticket on March 6. Passenger A will get the earlier number, then Passenger C, then Passenger B.
    Example 2 – Passenger A (A-List) purchases a ticket on March 1. Passenger B (no A-List or Early Bird) purchases ticket on March 4. Passenger C (not on A-List) purchases ticket on March 6 and pays extra for early bird. Passenger A will get the earlier number, then Passenger C, and finally Passenger B.
    So in summary the system looks at the purchase date to determine boarding pass order.
    I hope this helps.

  10. Dan Owen says

    As an A-lister, I have always wondered how this process works. I almost always get a boarding pass in the A16 – A30 range but often wonder how some of the people in front of me got there.

    According to the SWA website, Business Select and A-List passengers get first dibs on boarding passes then Early Bird check-in’s are assigned. I don’t always feel that this is the case.

    When do I board?
    EarlyBird boarding positions are automatically assigned and confirmed 36 hours prior to your scheduled local departure time
    Boarding positions will be assigned after Business Select and A-List Customers
    EarlyBird Check-in Customers will have the opportunity to board immediately following the limited number of passengers in the Business Select and A-List groups

  11. C.B. says

    I feel compelled to correct the commenters above. For A-Listers who book at least 36-hours in advance, your boarding position is not determined by when you buy your ticket or when you check in, but how frequently you fly SWA. As an A-Lister/Companion Pass holder, I travel frequently with colleagues for business. My colleagues who travel most frequently always receive A16, A17 or A18 boarding passes (ahead of me), regardless of when we book tickets or when we check in. I don’t know exactly how they measure the frequency with which passengers fly (e.g., last 12 months, last 24 months, or something else), but boarding position for A-Listers is definitely determined by how frequently passengers fly. To prove this, next time you fly SWA ask the person with A16 or A17 how often they fly SWA and they will tell you that they fly all the time.

  12. carlie says

    I’m on a flight right now…..checked in 1 hr b4 flight at curbside checkin. Got A40. First time I’ve gotten A boarding. Never an a-lister or early bird. So something else to consider. And flight is full.

  13. Michael Lebowitz says

    I was told by a SW representative that in rare cases that your situation could happen. Example – I checked in for my flight 24hrs prior and recieved A40 boarding pass. The next day (about an hour before my flight) I realize that I have to take a later flight. After I cancel my reservation, my “A40″ boarding position goes back into the pool. Well whomever checks in for their flight right after I cancel mine then gets my “A40″. The next person after that gets the next available which could a “C”. Hope that helps.

  14. Albert DeMers says

    I recently flew Southwest and had PAID the extra for early seating. On the out going we did receive an A seat boarding pass but on the return Southwest cancelled to flight we had book (at the time of check in at the counter) and booked us on a later flight. They also issued us boarding passes–mine was the 2nd to the last to board. When I ask about it at the gate they told me to go to the web site for answers. The web site stated no guarrentee on seating. The thing is they are fast at taking your money but not at giving the service that you PAID for.
    Not thats customer service and relations for you

  15. Not Sayin says

    Wow! Y’all are trying way too hard. I ALWAYS get an A boarding pass….and I’m not Business Select, not an A-Lister, never pay for early check-in, and usually don’t print my boarding pass until the hour before I leave for the airport. Just downloading the pass to my hard drive and with a little computer know-how and html-magic, my B or C becomes an A. I could play by the rules and pay the ridiculous fee, or be at the back of the line…but why do that when hijacking the boarding pass logic is so easy my 9 year old could do it? LOL. Happy travels all.

  16. Not Sayin says

    BTW…there is absolutely zero cross-logic between the scan-label on your boarding pass and the Boarding Group and Boarding Position on your pass. What does this mean? This means that when I present my boarding pass at the gate that I manipulated myself to give myself an A boarding pass rather than a B (for free, to add insult to your injury), nothing shows up to the SWA agent indicating that I wasn’t issued an A boarding pass at check-in. They happily smile and tell me to enjoy my flight….and I very much do knowing that I will never get a sh1tty seat no matter how late I check in. Ta ta.

  17. Not Sayin says

    I could stop and tell you exactly how to manipulate the boarding pass logic for your own personal gain….but wait! It’s confidential. LMAO

  18. N S Kashi says

    @ Not Sayin: isn’t that a fraud? i would be afraid of doing it. Sooner or later they are going to find out about it anyway (possibly because of this post of yours)