I was committed to not saying anything negative about anyone or thing on this website, but I feel that people should know what to expect when they fly with Southwest Airlines.
When I was a little girl I couldn’t walk out of a supermarket or convenience store without begging my parents for quarters to feed into the toy machines that lined the exits. Going food shopping with my father was an added treat because they not only had the rows of labeled clear plastic pods, they also had a machine filled with opaque eggs and a hen that danced and sang before laying one through the metal slot. The hen machine cost 50 cents instead of 25 and had the worst prizes, but there was something exciting about not knowing what you’d find inside the colorful eggs. There was always a chance that there would be something so much better than the sticky hands and stickers that filled the clear eggs.
Although I have a penchant for surprises and think that much of my life is spent just slipping by on pure chance, I don’t like being surprised on an airplane, especially when it comes to where I will be sitting.
Here’s a secret: I need to feel in control or at least have an exit plan to ease the constant state of anxiety and hyper-arousal that I experience in my day-to-day life. I’m one of those people who glances over her shoulder every few feet. I sit with my back to the wall in restaurants, stand by the door with my fists clenched during lock down drills at work, and develop an exit plan for worst-case scenario situations. Natural disasters, fires, gunmen, sudden illnesses, animal attacks, you name it, I’m ready. And because of this crazy sense of planning, I NEED to be in control of where I sit on an airplane. Since I’ve been traveling alone in my adult life, I always opt to sit in the exit row. Sure the extra leg room is a perk, but if something goes down, literally and figuratively, I’ll be the first to spring to action and help others exit the plane. At times when the exit row was no longer available, I made sure to sit as close to it as possible in an aisle seat.
When I flew to Denver last week on a work conference, I got to the airport later than usual– I was traveling light and although I would have been disappointed I could have lived with missing my flight. I barely made it through security, bought a lunch, and used the bathroom before it was time to board. I pulled out my boarding pass and searched for a seat number, but couldn’t find one.
They started to call sections to line up and although I didn’t want to seem like an inexperienced traveler or dumb blonde, I went to the ticket counter to inquire about my seat. “It’s open seating,” the associate said. When I looked at her blankly she explained that I would board the plane according to the letter and number designation on the pass, then I’d choose my seat from there. It was a first-come first-served basis. I looked down at my boarding pass: I was C 16. I had no idea what that meant as I went to stand by the designated column.
As often happens when I’m traveling solo, I started a conversation with a woman in C 12 about this new open seating thing that I’d never heard of. As far as we could tell, the letter and number combination was totally random. A lottery of sorts. An opaque egg in the mysterious hen machine. It didn’t matter how much money you paid or when you printed the boarding pass, it was pure chance, or so we surmised after talking to a few others in line.
I was nearly the last one on the plane. There was a mother and her two children behind me, but her husband had already boarded the plane in section A and had saved them seats. I felt the anxiety rising as I walked by the packed rows on the plane. The exit row was filled, the aisle seats were all taken. I kept walking. The only open seat was in the last row by the window. I nearly cried. This is the least safe place to be, I thought as I squeezed in past a mother holding her newborn and a man my age with long blonde hair.
The plane was too tiny for an across the US flight. Even though I’m only 5’4″ my knees almost touched the seat in front of me. The man beside me jabbed his elbow into my ribs every time he put his arm on the arm rest. When he fell asleep his head dangled dangerously close to my shoulder. I spent the entire flight pressed into the wall of the airplane, trying to breathe the anxiety away and calm the motion sickness that rose with each rise and fall of the airplane.
With under an hour left in the flight the pilot came over the intercom to say, “Ya, we’re going to be experiencing turbulence from here until we land. Keep your seat belts buckled and don’t move about the spacious cabin.”
I know turbulence is not a fault of Southwest Airlines, but the pilot’s less than apologetic tone and use of the word “spacious” felt like plain mockery. Perhaps it was just me though, unlucky enough to be C 16 and cramped into the last seat.
For the first time ever I puked on a plane. It wasn’t the dry heaving phlegm-in-a-bag type puke I’d experienced on one of my first flights when I was nine, but it was a full on stomach turning, sweat soaked, heaving puke that I’m proud to say landed directly in the miniature bag kindly provided by Southwest.
On my return flight, also on Southwest, I boarded in section C 20. I sat in the middle of the plane in a middle seat, less than ideal, but better than before. We met too much turbulence again as we descended through a thunderstorm. I didn’t lose my lunch at least, though the world spun until I woke up the next morning.
I was committed to not saying anything negative about anyone or thing on this website, but I feel that people should know what to expect when they fly with Southwest Airlines. I’ve never flown before with open seating and hope that I don’t in the future. First-come first-served should be something reserved for buffet tables and farmer’s markets, not seats on an airplane. In addition, if you’re flying with a friend or family member be advised you may be separated. Maybe to you seating preference doesn’t matter, I’d bet for most people it doesn’t. But if you’re like me and depend on the “choose your seat” option provided for free on other airlines, then you won’t want to fly Southwest.