Is that seat taken? Southwest Airlines seat-savers drive some passengers crazy

Dawn Gilbertson


Stu Weinshanker was boarding a Southwest Airlines flight in Las Vegas when he found something occupying his wife’s seat.

Well, not technically her seat because Southwest famously doesn’t assign seats. It was the exit-row aisle seat she had her eyes on so they could sit across from one another. They had each paid the airline’s $15 early bird fee in hopes of snagging the coveted seats with extra legroom — Weinshanker is 6-2' — during Southwest’s first-come, first-served open boarding.

A passenger who boarded before the couple was saving the aisle seat for her boyfriend because he was near the end of the boarding line. She sat in the middle and put a tablet on the aisle seat.

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Weinshanker told her, nicely he says, that Southwest has open seating and asked her to move the tablet to the window seat to try to save that for her boyfriend. She did, but burst into tears when her boyfriend boarded, telling him Weinshanker had intimidated her.

“He had to buy her all kinds of alcohol to get her to calm down,’’ the San Diego sales rep and consultant said.

Southwest, the nation's largest domestic carrier, gets plenty of love for its free bags, funny flight attendants and fares. But it attracts plenty of disdain, too, for its one-of-a-kind boarding process. Passengers are assigned a boarding group and sit in any open seat when it's their turn to board. 

The open-seating system spawns seat-saving, in which people who board first save seats for spouses, kids, friends and co-workers farther back in line, leaving fewer choices for other passengers. It's the airline version of saving seats at the movies or hotel pool.

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The topic divides Southwest passengers into two passionate camps, factions that no doubt will be on display as the holiday travel crush begins this week.

In one corner: those who see seat-saving as patently unfair and brand seat-savers as entitled passengers, seat cheats, seat hoarders, seat jerks and cheapskates (for not paying for early boarding for every member of their group.) The harshest comments are reserved for those who save prime seats in the front of the plane or exit rows or an entire row or two of seats.

In the other camp: passengers who think seat-saving is a #firstworld problem, like spotty in-flight Wi-Fi, and that people who are deeply bothered by it are spoiling for a fight, passive/aggressive or have no empathy for families traveling with young children. Pick another seat and move on, is a frequent refrain. One traveler not bothered by seat saving posted on FlyerTalk: "Fly another airline if this stuff bothers you.''

Officially, Southwest stays mum on the topic. The airline doesn't have a policy allowing or forbidding seat saving, leaving passengers and flight attendants to solve disputes on an individual basis. Many say the airline implicitly allows seat saving by not having a policy.

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"It's something that at times has put our flight attendants in a difficult position,'' said Audrey Stone, president of Southwest's flight attendants union, adding that it rarely escalates into a security issue. "We're counted on to just handle it as gracefully as possible if conflict occurs and our customers bring us into the discussion.''

Stone said flight attendants generally wish the airline would institute a policy on seat-saving. But Southwest says the issue is manageable and that creating a policy for or against saving seats would create more problems than it solves, taking flight  attendants away from their main focus on safety procedures and hospitality during boarding.

"They have a lot going on,'' said Steven Murtoff, senior director of onboard experience and policy, in-flight. "The issue of a policy is, you have a policy now you've got to enforce it ... Now we're getting down into the weeds and managing the seat conflict.''

The long-running seat saving kerfuffle — which one passenger on Twitter called the adult incarnation of the middle school lunch room — isn't going anywhere.

Complaints, questions and comments about Southwest seat-saving abound on social media and frequent-flier sites.

It's a big topic on Twitter, passengers asking questions about or taking a stand on seat saving nearly every day. (story continues below)



Seat saving is a perennially popular topic in the Southwest forums on frequent-flier site FlyerTalk, according to the forum moderator. There are so many threads, dating to 2007 when Southwest introduced numbered boarding positions, that some FlyerTalk regulars joke about how often it comes up. Some offer tips on ways to get the seat you want even if someone is saving it; others chide seat-saving critics for being petty. A few sit back and watch the debate unfold — again.

"I'm going to try and refrain from adding fuel to the fire in this thread,'' one member said recently. "I'm saving my kindling for the next one.''

Seat saving is even a hot topic on the company-run online forum The Southwest Airlines Community. In 2016, one thread had so many comments that the moderator shut it down and labeled the issue "resolved'' after a couple months.

The topic popped up again a few weeks later and remains today.

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"Southwest has locked the last thread on seat saving, so I will start a new one,'' one passenger wrote in May. "As someone who often pays for a higher boarding position, Southwest needs to adopt some common sense rules about what 'open seating' means. I would not be complaining at all if I'd only experienced people saving the ONE seat next to them for a later boarding companion — that would be a middle seat if they are in an aisle or window seat. But that is not what happens.''

Southwest representatives have been answering questions about seat saving for so long that they have stock answers.  A few samples:

"We are aware that seat saving is a byproduct of our open seating policy, and as long as the boarding process is not delayed, it isn't typically an issue. While we do not have a policy that prohibits saving seats, I understand your frustration and we appreciate your feedback.''

"Our boarding process has its benefits and challenges. We regret any inconvenience due to our open seating policy.''


Sometimes, though, the airline seems to encourage seat saving in friendly exchanges with travelers on Twitter.

Seat-saving issues intensified with the advent of early boarding fees. Southwest introduced EarlyBird Check-In in 2009 for $10 (it's now $15) and a couple years ago added "upgraded boarding'' at the gate. For $30 or $40 passengers can be among the first 15 passengers in line if those primo boarding slots aren't already occupied by passengers holding business select tickets, which include priority boarding.


Combined with preferred boarding for the airline's frequent fliers, the system creates two classes of travelers on an airline whose CEO says there is no second class: those with priority boarding and those without. Those without priority boarding are being pushed farther back in the Southwest boarding line. Seeing a saved seat when they get on the flight only adds to their angst.

Another issue has cropped up: Couples and families trying to save money or game the system pay the early boarding fee for one family member and save seats for the rest. 

One Southwest traveler who didn't pay for early boarding was so irked by seat saving by those who did brought up the topic in a meeting with her life coach in New York City. She ended up with a middle seat in the back of the plane. 

"It was, for her, so offensive,'' said Allison Carmen, the coach. "She was so upset about it.''

The passenger asked what she thought of the practice from a spiritual perspective. Carmen invoked Buddhism, recounting a conversation with a Buddhist teacher friend who was against the practice of saving seats at crowded counter-service restaurants until your food was ready.

"We're always putting ourselves first when we don't need to, when there's enough for everybody,'' Carmen said.

She turned the discussion with her client into an article for Psychology Today with the headline: "What would Buddha Do on Southwest Airlines?''

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The answer: "He probably wouldn't ask a friend to pay a fee so he could get a better seat for free. I suspect he would wait his turn, be kind to the people in line in front of and behind him and be grateful he had a plane home to see his family. I doubt he would worry much about the location of his seat.''

Southwest frequent flier Jonathan Bodow, a Tempe, Ariz., sales executive, says he sees seat saving on just about every flight, a couple times per flight.

Bodow, who has Southwest's highest frequent-flier status and the early boarding perks that come with it, admits he does what he calls a "soft seat save'' when traveling with his wife and teenagers. He pays the early check-in fee for at least two of them and puts a bag on one or two seats "hoping they'll be on soon enough.''

"I haven't had any side eye or any issues with it that I can recall,'' he said.

When he's just traveling with his wife, he will only save a middle seat and gives that up if someone desperately wants it.

"We're adults. We can sit apart for a few hours,'' he said.

He hasn't had to do it, but Bodow said he wouldn't hesitate to tell someone saving a prime seat that he's going to sit there.

"If you want to save a seat for your spouse and I really want that exit row, I’m going to probably take the exit row and then have an uncomfortable flight sitting next to you.''

Even though Southwest doesn't have an official policy on seat saving, the airline's Murtoff has a personal stance when he travels.

Asked whether he saves seats, he replied: "I would not.''

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A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 lands at Boise Airport on March 12, 2016.