Southwest pre-boarding policy vulnerable to abuse, critics say

Southwest’s laissez-faire approach to preboarding is causing turbulence.

Rule-abiding frequent flyers are calling out unscrupulous passengers who take advantage of the Dallas-based airline’s laidback attitude toward travelers who “need a little extra time” when boarding — with the carrier suggesting there’s little they can do to stop the bad actors.

Because Southwest doesn’t assign seats, preboarders get the run of the cabin, and a growing number of people — who reportedly are allowed to merely “self-identify” as disabled — are abusing the policy designed to give families with small children, the disabled and elderly a leg up, eagle-eyed observers insist.

Pre-boarding lines on Southwest are growing — and rule-following flyers are crying foul. REUTERS

Steve Maziarka, a national account manager based near Chicago’s Midway airport, a Southwest hub, told the Wall Street Journal he counted approximately 30 preboarders in line on a holiday period flight last year.

He reported seeing nearly as many on a Philadelphia to Chicago flight in February.

Every person in line meant Maziarka lost out on a prime seat he’d normally have access to. (Preboarders are prohibited from bagging sought after exit row seats.)

“People are taking advantage of the system,” says Maziarka, who has the airline’s top frequent-flier status. “It’s just gotten out of control.”

So out of control, in fact, that discussions on Reddit’s Southwest board have become heated to the point where moderators have repeatedly had to intervene, pleading for civility.

Because airlines can only pry so far into people’s personal situations, it’s difficult to prove that someone is preboarding under false pretenses.

Because airlines are only allowed to get so personal with their passengers, there’s little to stop someone from using the open policy to get ahead. Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/Shutte

This allows someone without scruples to use the longstanding policy to jump the line.

“Preboarding is offered to customers needing assistance for various reasons. We work hard to maintain the integrity of the boarding process while providing accommodations for all who fly,” followers of Southwest’s X feed will be used to hearing. “Since many disabilities aren’t visible, we’re unable to question the validity of preboarding requests.”

Spokesperson Chris Perry told the Journal that federal rules state all airlines are required to offer preboarding to any passenger self-identifying as disabled.

A long pre-boarding line can leave frequent flyers with limited options near the front of the plane. AFP via Getty Images

The outlet reported that the airline professes to ask a handful of questions to ensure that people qualify, but noted that the rep was unable to disclose details.

And even if the passenger runs into a skeptical gate agent, those who can’t get clearance to preboard are reportedly still allowed to join the family boarding group, which gets onto the plane after the A group.

The A group largely consists of frequent travelers and those who’ve paid extra fees for early boarding features.

And even if the passenger runs into a skeptical gate agent, those who can’t get clearance to preboard are reportedly still allowed to join the family boarding group, which gets onto the plane after the A group. AP

Mike Worley, a fundraising exec who travels every week for work, told the Journal he has become less loyal to Southwest, upping his use of Delta Air Lines, partially due to the jetway jockeying.

On Delta, “you just never see preboarders go up to the counter en masse to get on,” he said.

While Worley’s status puts him in a good spot in Group A on Southwest, there are times he’s finding himself way too far back on the plane, he said.

“Ten or 12 rows back is 10 minutes to get off the plane,” the Charleston, S.C. traveler said. “That’s crucial time to me.”

Meanwhile, Southwest executives shrug, downplaying the complaints, the outlet said.

At least for now. The mood on the Southwest subreddit can at times appear to be almost ready to boil over, with passengers even posting photos of supposed scofflaws in an effort to publicly shame them.

The problem is now so bad, any post discussing pre-boarding is now being vetted for “ill-informed, unsympathetic” language,” moderators wrote. Videos of “alleged fakers taken by armchair physicians are going away,” they promised.

Passengers with actual disabilities who use the message board said they were heartened.

“While there is unfortunately a small category of people who abuse preboarding, there are tons of people with real and often invisible disabilities that truly need it for a safe and comfortable travel experience,” one said.

So far, suggestions from the subreddit on how to fix the nagging problem have gone unheeded by the airline — and even passengers say they’re kind of stumped themselves.

“I have actually wasted plenty of time contemplating how they can fix the problem,” frequent traveler Maziarka said. “I could never come up with a way to combat it.”

The airline’s long-standing policy of open seating creates an issue with pre-boarding other airlines don’t have to face. Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY NETWORK

One popular idea: Forcing preboarders to move deeper into the plane, leaving the front rows open.

The issue may take care of itself — for the first time in years, there’s been discussion of assigned seats, something that would perhaps lure new customers at a time when profits are down.

Southwest isn’t the only organization coping with line cutters.

In April, Disney announced lifetime bans for anyone caught abusing the theme parks’ Disability Access Service in order to receive park perks, including no-wait rides.

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