Pros: Easy online purchase of tickets; easy frequent flyer rewards; not expensive
Cons: Seating policy has unhappy side effects
I recently completed a round of travel on Southwest Airlines, enough to get a free round-trip ticket which I used to travel a lot farther than I usually do. Mostly, I fly Southwest to get from my home in Los Angeles to a relatively nearby destination -- Sacramento, Oakland (to get to San Francisco), San Jose, Phoenix, Las Vegas.
For these kinds of flights, which are from an hour to an hour and a half in length, Southwest is ideal. They always have a lot of flights going to these cities; they seem to go to Las Vegas every half hour. I can get to where I want to be within an hour of when I need to be there. And since the duration of the flights is so short, I don't miss any of the so-called services (in-flight meals, audio programs, movies, hot towels) that other airlines provide. And when you think about it, those "services" aren't all that great to begin with -- Airline food? Airplane movies? If you're really willing to pay extra for that, knock yourself out; I generally read on an airplane anyway. Southwest has beverage service, and when you are in the frequent flyer program, they'll send you as many drink coupons as you want so you can get free booze, if you're so inclined.
The "cattle-call" seating policy on Southwest has its downside, which is competition with your fellow-passengers for an early boarding pass. By now, most people are familiar with Southwest's policy for seat assignments -- they don't have any. You just walk on board the plane and pick the seat you want as long as it isn't taken. The first person to check in gets a boarding pass with a "1" on it, the second person a "2," and so on. Then they do the pre-board for parents with little kids and older folk, and then they board numbers 1-30. Then, they board 31-60, then 61-90, and then everyone else. I put a high value on getting a low boarding number, because after the first fifty or so people, all the space for overhead cargo has been completely taken.
So if you show up late for your plane, you'll get a high number and probably won't get the kind of seat you want and all the overhead storage space will be gone. Yes, it's nice and all to get to just pick a seat, but to get a boarding pass you have to check in an hour early. For just about every flight, this means you need to get to the airport an hour and a half early, so you can stand in line for half an hour in front of an empty gate to get one of the earlier boarding passes. Everyone knows this, so that means to beat the crowd you've got to get there an hour and forty-five minutes earlier... and the cycle grows and grows. I've recently noticed that when I get there exactly an hour for a flight, I get a number between 30 and 50, meaning that there are that many people already there more than an hour beforehand. And I hate hanging around airports any longer than I absolutely have to. Airports suck.
But for a short flight, it doesn't matter all that much. Southwest's website (www.southwest.com) is the easiest to use of any of the airline websites I've ever seen. It's the only way to buy tickets. This is especially true because you get double credit for their frequent-flyer program if you buy your tickets online. When you do this, all the flights are ticketless -- you just show up with your driver's license and get a boarding pass. It could not be easier and I've never had a problem of any kind.
The frequent-flyer program is also ridiculously easy. You show up with the card they issue you and you get the credit for the flight. One trip each way is one credit (or two credits if you buy online). You can get half-credits for renting cars or staying at hotels from Southwest's corporate "partners" like Mariott or Hertz. But whatever with that; the point is that it only takes sixteen credits -- that's four round trips if you buy your tickets online.
When you get your free flight, they send you a ticket voucher in the mail. You must keep this voucher with you to use the free trip; ticketless travel is not available when you fly for free. I booked my free travel on the phone rather than online because there did not seem to be an easy way to redeem the tickets on the site.
I did take Southwest on a longer flight recently, with the long leg of the trip being from Phoenix to Baltimore. Both the Phoenix to Baltimore outbound leg and the Baltimore to Phoenix return leg got to the destination airports well ahead of schedule, which was very pleasing to me. A nice benefit of arriving in Phoenix early was that I was able to change flights to an earlier trip on the return leg to Los Angeles -- cutting more than two hours off my scheduled return trip. There was no problem at all with switching from one flight to another; the agent at the gate took my free travel voucher, smiled, and gave me a boarding pass (#30 in this case) and ten minutes later, I was on board a plane and had saved myself an hour and a half of hanging around an airport.
Every airline is going to have its share of equipment delays and missing baggage. Since I usually fly to nearby locations, I can alleviate the problem somewhat by only packing carry-on luggage. Most Southwest passengers do this, too. Southwest is remarkably free from the bizarre pricing disparities which plague other airlines: the person sitting next to you on, say, American might have paid six times what you did for a coach-class seat, or only a sixth of what you did. Not so on Southwest -- there are different prices available depending on how far in advance you buy your tickets and if you need them to be transferrable, but the prices make sense and are uniform. That is pleasing to me because it seems somehow to be fair.
The flight staff on Southwest flights generally are good-humored and friendly, and frequently the customers are, too. I've had flights where I never got any work or reading done because I've been chatting with random people I met on the flight. Other airlines seem more interested in themselves than their customers. Southwest realizes that you want to get where you're going. They're perfect for the short-distance flying I usually do.