Southwest Airlines Sued Over “Early Bird” Fees That Don’t Guarantee Priority Boarding

Image courtesy of (Adam Fagen)

When you pay a $25 fee to board a flight — especially one without assigned seats — ahead of other passengers, you might be ticked off to arrive at the gate and find out that not only aren’t you in the highest-priority boarding group, but that some of the people in front of you didn’t pay any additional money for their place in line. This is why a pair of Southwest passengers have filed a class-action suit against the airline, claiming the airline’s Early Bird Check-In program is “deceptive, fraudulent, and misleading.”

In the complaint [PDF] filed last week in a federal court in California, the plaintiffs say they each bought “Wanna Get Away” tier (aka coach) tickets on Southwest and paid $12.50 per flight leg ($25 round-trip) for Early Bird access, which is supposed to automatically check you in and assign you a boarding position 12 hours before those passengers who didn’t pay the fee.

But when they got to the airports for their respective flights, both plaintiffs — one of whom had to board with the B group of travelers — say that the travelers in front of them had not all paid for the early access and who were not Business Select passengers.

Some of the people in front of the plaintiffs had paid the higher “Anytime” fares, but as you can see from the chart below, priority boarding is not one of the perks associated with this middle tier of ticket:

The plaintiffs say that Southwest’s policies are confusing and contradictory, as the above chart mentions no boarding benefit for Anytime tickets, but the below answer in the Early Bird FAQ shows that Anytime passengers who pay for Early Bird access will be given a higher priority than Wanna Get Away passengers:

“This is ambiguous and misleading,” reads the complaint, which alleges that passengers would not buy the Early Bird access — and Southwest wouldn’t make millions in ancillary revenue from it — if they were “properly informed.”

Additionally, the lawsuit points out that Southwest puts no cap on the number of Early Bird Check-ins it can sell for each flight, meaning that an entire plane of around 200 passengers could — in theory — all pay for priority boarding.

“[A] customer may purchase the ‘Early Bird Check-in’ add-on and still receive a boarding position of C sixty (C60), the last boarding position of the flight,” argue the plaintiffs, “thus creating a fiction of ‘priority boarding.'”

The class action seeks damages for all Southwest travelers who paid for tickest and/or Early Bird access on Southwest in the last four years.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.