Is Southwest’s EarlyBird check-in worth $10? The answer is …

swplane1Yes. Sure, Southwest’s decision to begin charging for early boarding is taking it down a slippery slope toward a la carte fees, but what a ride it is, according to passengers like Jennifer Rigdon.

What is EarlyBird? Southwest describes it as follows:

With EarlyBird Check-in, you’ll receive a better boarding position that is confirmed for your trip. Since you’re boarding earlier, there will be more open seats and overhead bin space from which to choose. Then you can sit back and relax as the other passengers board.

Rigdon emailed me shortly after Southwest’s announcement to let me know she wanted to try it. I asked her to report back.

For $20, it’s not a huge loss if it’s not a benefit. I signed up, paid and will know when I print my boarding pass on Saturday whether it was worth it.

Before getting to Rigdon’s experience, a little context: Southwest has always been the most egalitarian domestic airline. There’s no first class section, no seat assignments. In fact, until it revised its boarding procedures in 2007, getting on a Southwest flight was pretty much a free-for-all — you got there first, you boarded first.

It was clear that Southwest wanted to go with assigned seating, but it stopped short of that, maybe because assigned seats ran contrary to its corporate culture.

But the airline still wanted to segment its customers, giving business travelers first crack at the best seats, so it compromised. Its revised policies allowed business travelers paying the most for their tickets to board first. EarlyBird is a natural outgrowth of that decision, turned upside-down. Instead of paying more money for your ticket and getting on the plane early, you’re paying a fee after you’ve bought a less expensive ticket. (Either way, Southwest makes money.)

AirTran, Spirit and Allegiant already offer a comparable fee. You pay an extra $15 or more for a confirmed reservation. Somehow, EarlyBird doesn’t feel as bad, though.

Here’s what Rigdon told me about being an EarlyBird:

I did the Southwest early bird check-in for both legs of my trip to Tempe, Ariz. The order of check-in priority is: Business Select, A-Listers and then those of us who paid the up-charge as early birds. Both flights were full. I was A-28 there and A-25 on the return. There are few Business Select passengers, leaving a gap in the numbering to begin with.

I think the hard part is there is nothing to compare it to. I print my boarding pass as soon as it’s available, so it is hard to know what would happen if I printed it later. Next time I’m going to wait a while and then print the pass – Early Bird doesn’t guarantee an A group boarding pass, but I’m thinking that it wouldn’t/shouldn’t be a C group pass.

I’ll definitely do it again – it’s more reasonable than the upgrade to Business Select, and for $20 I think it’s worth it.

Would you pay an extra $10 to get on the plane early? Under the right circumstances, I might.

The better question is: Should I have to?

(Photo: flygraphix/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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