There was always something amusing about watching Southwest's passengers stake out their spaces in line and then brace for the inevitable rush when the gate agents open the doors to the plane. But it never seemed as funny to me when I was in line, so I'm happy to report that the original low-cost carrier has finally decided to modify its cattle-call approach to loading people on planes and adopt a new boarding system.
The new process modifies the existing system by opening up online check-in 24 hours prior to departure. Based on when you check in, you'll be assigned to group A, B, or C. At the airport, there will be TV monitors displaying the boarding groups and notifying passengers when it's time for each group to begin boarding. With your group's letter, you'll also have a number (e.g. B17), which represents the column (of five passengers) you'll be in.
Already in effect in San Antonio, Southwest plans to add the new boarding system to the rest of its airports by early November.The airline had also been considering a number of family boarding concepts, and one unfortunate side effect of this new approach is that it may actually make family seating worse. Parents with children four years of age or younger will board between the A and B groups, rather than being allowed to pre-board as is standard on other airlines (and has been the norm on Southwest as well). Not only will families who check in later have to wait until group A has boarded, but they will have to contend with many more passengers once they're on the plane.
That may have consequences for the rest of the passengers as well, since small children will likely be scattered throughout the cabin, rather than clustered toward the front of the plane, as they would otherwise likely be. At least children from ages five to 11 who are traveling alone will be allowed to pre-board, as will passengers with disabilities.
On the flip side, organized travelers should benefit from the new system, since they'll be able to check in, get their assigned section, and know they won't have to jockey for position to land a decent seat.