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FLIERS LINE UP TO CRITICIZE SOUTHWEST'S BOARDING FEE

The $10 EarlyBird charge is unfair, many say.

Grabbing a good seat on Southwest Airlines always took some effort. But I enjoyed the chase trying to gain an edge in the airline's open-seating procedure.

You had to go online 24 hours before departure time to snag a spot near the front of the boarding line. A little late and you missed joining 40 or so folks who claimed the first seats. Wait too long and you were doomed to the back of the bus or a dreaded middle seat.

The game changed last week for the worse, particularly for families.

Now, passengers can pay $10 each way and jump ahead of the unwashed masses (though not the airline's most frequent fliers or travelers with pricey Business Select tickets).

Reaction on travel Web sites was overwhelmingly negative. Many scoffed that Southwest - which not long ago mocked competitors for hidden charges - had hopped on the fee bandwagon with both feet.

"Now, if I don't pay $10 each way, I might get B or C boarding groups even if I check in 24 hours before?" wrote a customer named Matt on Southwest's blog. "I gave up on Northwest/Delta because they charge you for everything. Looks like Southwest is becoming just another airline."

A poll of 1,200 respondents on the TripAdvisor Web site suggested few customers will fork over the $10. Just 22 percent were "somewhat likely" or "very likely" to buy the EarlyBird Check-in option.

Of course, traditional network airlines always saved the better seats - on aisles, exit rows and in the front - for their regular customers and travelers paying full fare. Discounters such as Allegiant, Spirit and AirTran charge extra for reserving a seat.

Southwest has staunchly resisted assigned seating. Letting people pick their seats remains the fastest way to board a plane and get it back in the sky, making money.

The airline pitched EarlyBird as a new product, not a fee for existing service, for travelers who wanted early boarding without watching the clock. Business travelers who shunned Southwest for not offering reserved seats are the obvious customers.

But the change carries some risk. Southwest won't limit the number of EarlyBird upgrades sold on any flight. What repeat business will the airline get if a passenger pays $10 and ends up No. 50 in line?

The airline will continue boarding families with kids age 4 and younger after the initial A boarding group, spokeswoman Ashley Rogers said. But customers were complaining hours after the product launch that families with older kids who don't pay will get scattered among the last remaining seats.

"If my 7-year-old is sitting by herself because everybody paid the $10, I will be more than upset," chimed in an anonymous poster on the Southwest blog.

Some chatted online about their future strategy: One family member buys an early boarding position, plunks down and saves surrounding seats for everyone else.

Just think how much fun that trip will be.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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