Southwest fliers can board early – for a $40 fee

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Southwest Airlines, known for open seating and boarding passengers in bunches, announced this week that fliers can buy a priority spot in boarding group “A” for $40 per flight.

Southwest will put unsold slots in the A1-15 boarding group up for sale, when available, at the gate beginning 45 minutes before departure. Passengers will then be able to use a credit card to buy an early boarding spot. The airline tested the program in San Diego in December and received positive feedback.

“We have continued to look for ways to increase revenues in challenging economic times by offering optional services for which there are optional service charges,” said Southwest spokesperson Brad Hawkins. “These are not punitive against other customers.”

Southwest “has arrived late to the airline industry’s ancillary revenue gouge-fest” with the $40 per-segment access “to its otherwise signature ‘cattle car’ boarding process,” said airline industry analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Company.

The boarding option may not be a good fit for some passengers. “In many markets a customer would be better off buying up in the fare structure to Business Select, which also conveys in-flight amenities and extra Rapid Rewards frequent flier credit,” Mann said.

“This just confirms my decision to avoid Southwest,” said author and education technology consultant Susan Brooks-Young, who logs more than 150,000 miles in the air each year. She said she’s never been thrilled with Southwest’s policy of unassigned seating, but chose to fly with the airline when it was the best price and because they don’t charge for checked luggage. “Now that they are tacking on fees just like everyone else, there’s no reason for me to ever book with them,” she said.

Southwest passengers already have a few options for ensuring they’re among the first on the plane. They can pay $10 each way for EarlyBird Check-In and get a boarding group assignment 24 hours before other passengers, or they may purchase a Business Select fare which guarantees a spot in the A1-15 boarding group and some additional perks.

While “monetizing” the boarding process has become an airline-industry standard, Southwest’s new  option may serve to “dramatically increase the amount of gaming that takes place among travelers,” especially those who might have purchased the higher cost Business Select fares anyway, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing.

It also may be a sign that what Hawkins refers to as Southwest’s “crusade against nickel and diming our customers” may be waning.

In order to generate new revenue, Southwest “has limited options and is stuck with what they can do,” said Harteveldt.

He thinks the airline might next explore charging passengers for checking a second bag and securing an assigned seat in certain rows.

“Southwest’s days of advertising itself as a fee–free airline are over.”

(My story: Southwest fliers can board early – for a $40 fee first appeared on NBC News Travel)