Southwest and The Exit Row


This post is by Jeff Carter from Points and Figures


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Herb Kelleher passed away yesterday.  He was an innovator.  No one will be leaving candles at airports like they did for Steve Jobs when he passed away but he was an entrepreneur that made our lives better.

The first case I ever did in undergraduate business school was on Southwest Airlines.  I’d never heard of them.  They weren’t in Chicago yet.  Of course, now when I fly I usually fly Southwest because it’s so convenient.  No change fees, no baggage fees and their operations are at Midway which is closer to downtown than O’Hare.

Like every good entrepreneur, Herb started small.  He changed air travel inside the state of Texas.  He built an airline that would change the industry.

One of the innovative things Southwest does is seating.  It is incredibly efficient at getting people onto planes.   You can pay to check in ahead of time.  You line up to a number.  Then, you walk onto the plane and find your seat.  If you spend a little more, you can get first pick.  Makes sense.

Another wrinkle for me when I travel is my size.  At 6’5″, my frame isn’t exactly cut out for air travel.  I always try and get an exit row if I can get one.  On Southwest, the way the planes are designed, there is one seat that an NBA center would feel comfortable in.  It’s got a lot of leg room where you can really stretch out.  So, I always try to get the exit row, and specifically that seat if it’s available.  When you show up to the Southwest gate, all the tall guys eye each other to see who is first in line.

Lately I have found that people are gaming the system and this is something that Southwest needs to set a policy on immediately.  The last four flights I have been on, someone is always saving an exit row seat for a traveling companion.  I understand saving seats, but then both of you had better pay up on your ticket.

Instead, what tandems are doing is one person will pay up and get into the first A group.  They board, and the other person boards with the B group or C group.

That’s not okay.

If I am paying for first pick, I ought to get it.  No saved seats.  I understand someone might want to sit next to their friend or wife, but in the US I think the max flight is 6 hours from coast to coast and they will be there when you deplane.  Pay the upcharge and the acrimony goes away.  Figure in the all in cost on Southwest and compare it to another airline.

Today I got on the plane and the coveted seat with lots of legroom was available.  A shortish guy (Under 6′) was sitting in the middle seat with earbuds on the other seat.  I said that I would like to sit there and he said he was reserving it for his wife.  Personally, I appreciate that, but perhaps she should have paid to be in the group boarding the plane first.  He got mad at me, and said, “OK, I will take it.”

That actually benefitted me because now I got the aisle seat which is better than the middle one, plus instead of sitting next to him, I got to sit next to his wife who I assumed would also be small in stature and she was.

You might think my rant is a little whiney.  But, airlines excel at first, second and third degree price discrimination better than any other industry outside of theme parks.  Southwest is underpricing their exit row.

Additionally, I think it should just be a rule that if you are six feet or under, you don’t get to sit in an exit row.  Save it for the tall people.   We have to pay extra for clothes, shoes, doorways are designed too small, and so are tables, counters and other things in life.

Yes, I feel a bit better today and I can tell you that the plane was full of people coughing.  This flu thing is going to spread like wildfire across the US if it hasn’t already.