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Are These Flyers Abusing the Southwest Seating Policy?

In this month’s edition of our travel advice column, we discuss Southwest’s open seating policy. Plus: what to do if your personal space is being violated on a plane, service animals, and whether you have to close the window shade upon request.

Saving Seats on Southwest

Q. My question is about flying and it’s a problem several of our friends and family have encountered recently. It regards Southwest Airlines’ Free for All boarding. My husband and I pay the extra money for the advance check-in so we can board at least somewhat earlier than others. The problem is with people who are traveling in a group who designate one or two of them who also pay the extra money and board early, but then save multiple seats for their companions who didn’t pay the extra and board later. Last time we flew Southwest, two people had saved almost a dozen seats. It’s unfair to people like us who paid extra to board earlier to get our desired seat and also it’s unfair to those people who went to the trouble of checking in exactly 24 hours ahead. I was tempted to toss the stuff off the seat and sit down but didn’t want to sit next to some angry troll for the entire flight. Since it’s a problem that Southwest seems to be ignoring, what else can we do besides choosing to fly another airline?  That’s been our first option, but sometimes it’s not possible.—JF

A. JF, you are not alone in your frustration over this abuse of the Southwest seating policy. There are pages dedicated to flyers complaining about this issue on Southwest’s message board. I reached out to Southwest and asked if saving seats was allowed, and Ro Hawthorne, one of the airlines’ spokespeople, responded: “Our policy is open seating. … Above all, we ask our employees and customers to practice common sense, good judgment, and to be civil toward each other.”

If you’ve flown at all recently, you won’t be surprised to see that common sense and civility seem to have been left on the ground at the airport, and people are prepared to fight over open seats. The official response from Southwest’s team is that they “trust passengers to work out seating arrangements among themselves,” which seems like a stressful solution to me.

I agree with you that voting with your dollars is the best solution here, and choosing to fly an airline with assigned seats when you’re able to makes the most sense, as, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a policy against saving seats on Southwest. When flying another airline isn’t possible, there’s always the option that some people on the community forum suggested—paying to board first, saving a bunch of seats, and selling them to people boarding later. (Just kidding. Please be a decent human and don’t do this.) Otherwise, it seems like your only option to ensure a good seat on Southwest is to pay between $30 and $50 each way to get into the first boarding group, and then get to the airport early to line up within that group. If a decent seat is important to you, make sure you factor that cost into the price when you’re comparing tickets across airlines.

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Sitting Next to a Service Animal

Q. What is the airline requirement about having to sit next to a service animal? They are becoming very common and I wonder if all of them are legitimate. I really do not want to sit next to someone’s dog while I eat my turkey sandwich or sleep with it inches away from me. Does a regular passenger have any right to be notified ahead of time that they will be sitting next to a service animal?—CO

A. It would be even more awkward if you were eating a turkey sandwich next to an emotional support turkey, but I get your point. Airlines have been recently cracking down on fake service animals, so it’s likely that the animal you’d be seated near is there for a serious, legitimate purpose. Fortunately, service animals are required to be well behaved, and according to the Department of Transportation (DOT), airlines don’t have to accept service animals that are unruly or disruptive (including barking or jumping on other passengers), too large/heavy to fit on the floor in front of their owner, or not a legitimate type of service animal (snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, and spiders can all be legally turned away by airlines).

There are different rules regarding service animals (those that have been specifically trained to perform essential duties such as guiding the blind or giving warning for seizures) and emotional support animals (those providing comfort for emotional disabilities). For service animals, the passenger does not always have to notify the airline ahead of time, and so there’s no way for you to be given a heads up that you’ll be seated by an animal. Passengers bringing an emotional support animal are usually required to give notice to the airline, but the airline still won’t notify the people seated around the animal.

It’s worth noting that most airlines don’t allow service or emotional support animals to sit in an emergency exit row, so you might want to shell out the extra money to book a seat there. Otherwise, you can ask a flight attendant to move you to a new seat—even if the plane is full, some people might jump at the chance to sit next to an adorable animal. Airlines will work to move a passenger with an allergy or phobia, or accommodate them on a later flight if necessary.

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Seat Encroachment

Q. I was recently seated next to a larger person whose body overhung the armrest and crowded me. It was horrible! The plane was full and there was nowhere to go, and I am sure nobody would have consented to change seats anyway, when they saw the situation. What are my rights in this situation?—RG

A. Airline seats are getting smaller, and that’s no fun for flyers of any size. Most airlines require that passengers who can’t fit into a single seat buy an extra seat (or pay to upgrade to a larger seat). Click here to see our list of passenger of size policies for most airlines.

If you do find that someone is encroaching upon your space, the best course of action is to discreetly speak to a flight attendant before takeoff to see if you can be moved. Remember to be polite and to spare a thought for the feelings of your seatmate—being kind doesn’t hurt and might score you a better outcome with a seat change. If the flight is full and you can’t be moved, try sending the airline a written complaint after your flight. You may be eligible for some form of compensation, which should take a bit of the sting out of having to share part of your seat.

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Window Shade Wars

Q. Twice I have been on flights from Europe to the U.S. where I booked a window seat in first class. The flights left Europe mid-morning. I enjoy looking out of the window during flights, even if we are over the ocean or it is cloudy. On both of these flights a flight attendant came by and asked me to close the shade because someone on the plane had complained (one of the complaints was from someone on the opposite side of the plane). What are my rights? If I didn’t want to look out, I wouldn’t book a window seat.—JG

A. Window shades are a bit like the recline function on your seat—your comfort might come at the expense of another passenger, but it’s a built-in feature on a plane and there are no rules against using it (aside from during takeoff and landing, due to safety regulations). A polite conversation can go a long way in finding the solution to the up-or-down window shade tug-of-war. Offer to pull the shade down part way to reduce glare and explain that looking out the window is enjoyable for you, and you may be able to find a compromise. If you’re really committed, try packing a cheap eye mask to offer to anyone who’s bothered by the open window while trying to sleep.

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Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at editor@smartertravel.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.

Editor’s Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

What to Wear on Your Flight

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Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world. 

By Caroline Morse Teel

Unfortunately for her bank account, Principal Editor Caroline Morse Teel is powerless to resist a good flight deal. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline.

Caroline joined Boston-based SmarterTravel in 2011 after living in Ireland, London, and Manhattan. She's traveled to all seven continents, jumped out of planes, and bungeed off bridges in the pursuit of a good story. She loves exploring off-the-beaten path destinations, anything outdoorsy, and all things adventure.

Her stories have also appeared online at USA Today, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Yahoo, Boston.com, TripAdvisor, Buzzfeed, Jetsetter, Oyster, Airfarewatchdog, and others.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "Earplugs. A good pair has saved my sleep and sanity many times!"

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro.

Travel Motto: "Don't be boring."

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle (when the first class private suite isn't available)."

E-mail her at cmorse@smartertravel.com.

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