That's "F" as in "fee," which is what Southwest's new EarlyBird Check-In option is, even if Southwest won't use the word. The argument is really over whether this should be considered one of those "hidden" or "nickel and diming" fees that Southwest promotes itself as avoiding (as with this new commercial), or, as Southwest argues, a new service option that should be considered differently because it is not something Southwest previously provided for free. (Of course, it was free to try be among the first to check-in when the airline's online check-in window opened 24 hours before a flight, thus getting closer to the front of the boarding line, but it also could be a major hassle to do that.)
Customer reaction to Southwest's new policy has not exactly been overwhelmingly positive. To the contrary, online postings on forums and blogs have been predominantly negative, even on the airline's own blog, which attracts the airline's most loyal customers (to its credit, Southwest leaves the negative comments up there). Comments like "huge thumbs down" and "shame on you" are typical on the Southwest blog.
Here's something else to consider with Southwest's new EarlyBird Check-In Option: it's not refundable, even if a flight cancellation and rebooking takes away his spot near the front of the line. That's because, as I wrote in this Aviation Daily subscriber-only story, the higher line placement is based on the earlier check-in. A customer, for example, might be rebooked on a flight that already has boarded. But he or she will not get the $10 back. “As much as we’re able to, we would accommodate those customers,” a Southwest spokeswoman told me. “It’s hard to provide any guarantees, because every scenario could be different.”
I understand the reason, but I'm not sure customers are going to take it very well when they get nothing for their extra payment.
Finally, an answer, of sorts, to an issue raised by my colleague Benet Wilson in her earlier blog posting on this topic: It is true that the sales of EarlyBird are uncapped, so, if too many customers purchase it for a particular flight, some of them could still end up in the B or even C boarding group in spite of paying that extra $10. A Southwest spokeswoman told me, however, that the airline is not ruling out the implementation of a cap if EarlyBird proves to be too popular.
That, of course, will be the true test of this idea: How many customers actually pay for EarlyBird, as well as how easy or difficult it proves to be too implement and how the customers react to how it is implemented. The Southwest boarding concept seems to be getting awfully complicated for a carrier that relies on simplicity -- and I haven't even talked about the customer confrontations that could result from line-butting and seat-saving when money gets involved. Airlines, however, also are in dire need of additional revenue. I'm guessing we'll know within a few months whether this is a revenue-raising method that survives.