This week Southwest Airlines officially announced that, starting August 29, 2018, the company will change the pricing structure for its wildly successful EarlyBird Check-In perk, which currently costs just $15 per each one-way flight. Why? Well, because it can.
If you've ever flown Southwest (and you probably have since it carries more passengers each year than any other U.S. airline -- 158 million in 2017), you know that one of the airline's quirks is that you can't reserve seats. Every seat is first-come, first-served. So, obviously, the sooner you can get on the airplane, the better seat and overhead bin space you'll be able to secure.
When you check in for your Southwest flight (online beginning 24 hours prior to the scheduled departure time, or in person at the airport), you're assigned to a boarding group -- A, B, or C -- and position number: 1, 2, 3, etc. So, when you check in for your flight, you might be assigned the alphanumeric A1, or B15, or C60. This determines where you stand in line. A1 goes on board first, and C60 (or whatever the highest C number is) goes last.
However, Southwest soon figured out that people would be willing to pay for the privilege of getting a better position in the boarding line. The result was EarlyBird Check-In, which automatically checks you in for your flight before the traditional 24-hour check-in and giving you an almost sure shot at the coveted A boarding group.
While this $15 perk generated a ton of cash for Southwest ($358 million in 2017 according to an article in USAToday), it apparently wasn't enough. Beginning August 29, EarlyBird Check-In can be purchased at prices ranging from $15 - $25 one-way per passenger. The price will depend on the popularity of the flight and the distance it goes.
According to a post on Southwest's website:
"We're making this change so we can continue offering a product our customers love. Of course, an increase in the price of a product is rarely welcome news, but as EarlyBird increases in popularity, we want to protect the value it offers our customers."
I'm not sure how increasing the EarlyBird Check-In price helps Southwest continue to offer a product customers love. I suspect most customers would continue to love EarlyBird even if the price was dropped to $5, and the cost to Southwest for offering this computerized perk is probably a number very close to zero.
Anyway, it will be interesting to see if this fee increase results in more Southwest passengers taking a closer look at other airlines -- Alaska, United, American, and others -- that allow you to reserve your seat in advance. I know I will.