Friday, September 9, 2016

The Democracy of Southwest Air

southwest seats (3)

When Mr. Trizzle dragged me on my first Southwest flight, I hated it. I didn’t understand the system, it made me feel like a cow being led to slaughter, I panicked about what seat I would get. I hated it. Over the past nearly-decade, I’ve come to love Southwest. (Now I have all those feelings, including the cow bit, on other airlines.) I’ve also realized something about Southwest. Southwest is the quintessential representation of how a democratic society actually works in practice.

Theoretically, every passenger on a Southwest flight is equal. Every chair is the same, every section of the plane receives the same service. Everyone has an equal opportunity to obtain the spot that is best for them. No seats are assigned; everyone is free to take any seat once they board. You board in the order of check-in. Check-in opens to everyone at the same time. Anyone can have any seat. Theoretically.

Whether you can get your ideal seat depends on a number of factors, the two most important being how many other people are vying for that same seat (competition) and your spot in line (your starting point in the community).

Spots in line, starting positions in the society, are determined by check-in. Everyone can check-in for the flight beginning 24 hours before departure. The sooner you check-in, the closer to the front of the line you are. Everyone has an equal shot. Except they don’t.

Within that theoretical equal playing field of checkin, there are a number of factors that give people advantages. At the most basic level, those with the free time and the best support networks have the best shot at a good starting position. checking in right at the 24-hour mark. These are the folks who can make themselves free in a location with internet access on a computer or phone exactly 24 hours before their flight or who can call on a friend or relative to be so. Those who do not have easy internet access or who do not have the flexibility in their schedules or people available to help them out are at a disadvantage. I.e. there are certain basics the society takes as a given and those who do not have those basics start off a bit behind.

Then there are groups with actual advantages, those who get better starting positions because they have something beyond the norm. Some of these advantages are obvious, some less so. First, there are those with money, those who can buy their way to the top, whose money gets them special privileges and access to places ahead of others. These are the Business Select customers who pay a premium up to 3x the regular fare for the first 15 spots in line. They also get a bonus of special treatment in the form of a free alcoholic beverage.

There’s also the slightly lower-class-trying-to-be-rich folks who don’t fork out the full amount for a Business Select ticket but can pay a small premium for the airline to check them in before people can start checking themselves in. These are the folks who purchase Early Bird Checkin.

These moneyed privileges are well-known. The privileges and how the privileges are obtained are obvious. Theoretically, anyone can join these groups. Everyone is offered a Business Select ticket; everyone is offered Early Bird Checkin. Just as anyone can buy a ticket to that fundraising dinner or purchase that season ticket next to the big-wig they want to meet. What matters is not that the privilege is offered, what matters is that the conditions on which is offered make it accessible only to some.

But there are additional ways to obtain advantages, privileged groups that are less apparent. These are the insiders.

First are the folks who have earned special treatment, the equivalent of folks with connections. These are those who have achieved A-List status (this is where I am now and holy cow is it fabulous!). In some ways, this is purchased because it requires earning a lot of points, which means buying a lot of plane tickets, but it is not an extra cost beyond the plane tickets. A-List members are checked-in automatically without purchasing either the very pricey Business Select or the premium Early Bird Checkin. In fact, they are checked in before the Early Birds, getting the best non-Business Select spots possible. (And I imagine this connection gets even greater when you obtain A+ status and certainly when you earn the companion pass that allows someone to fly free with you on every trip.) These people are so connected to the system, by virtue of their flying with Southwest so often, that the system works for them.

Second are the folks who know the system so well they know how to work within it so that it works for them without outright privileges being given. These are the folks who move through the relevant parts of society so frequently, who fly Southwest so often, they have learned the tricks to getting their ideal outcome. They know their routes. They know the planes; they know what’s likely to benefit them. I have been in this group for a long time, but I will save my strategy for a later post.

Lastly, there are the protected classes. Those who might otherwise be run-down by the masses if the system did not offer them special protections. On Southwest, these are the Preboarders: the elderly, handicap and young children travelling alone who board the plane before everyone else. At first glance, they may seem privileged, but being a protected class comes at a cost. There are seats in which they are not allowed to sit, there are places within the system they cannot go, and they must wait for assistance from the system before they can do anything, before they can board or deplane.

Southwest’s egalitarian boarding system puts everyone on equal footing, except for those that have the money, connections or insider information to give themselves a better chance of getting what they want. In this case, it’s just a seat on an airplane. In society, it’s quite a bit more.

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