The Critical Points: Why the Last Row on Southwest Is the Best Place to Fly
Each week in his column "The Critical Points," TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn't agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.
Last week at the Chicago TPG reader event, I had a great conversation with a few attendees about why I chose to fly into Chicago-Midway (MDW) instead of Chicago-O'Hare (ORD). Putting aside the airports themselves, the good folks to whom I was talking said they avoid Midway because it's home to Southwest Airlines — and they proudly told me they don't fly Southwest. When I said the best place to fly domestically is in the back row of a Southwest 737, I was met with a few mouth drops and puzzled looks.
I love the strong reaction you get when Southwest is brought into a conversation. There are those staunchly loyal and those squarely against what I jokingly refer to as "the most democratic airline" in the country — because everyone has the same shot at an equal flying experience. Before you think I'm crazy, hear me out on why you should consider row 30 (737-800) or row 24 (737-700) on your next Southwest flight.
Consistency Is Key
I largely travel Southwest when flying with my wife and young children. For those of you facing this situation, you know routine and consistency are critical to minimize stress as a traveling family. So far, the last row of every Southwest flight we have boarded — during the family boarding slot — has been empty. It has thus become the Kerrs' row. My kids know what to expect and are comforted by the routine.
Traveling with family or not, the Southwest boarding process can induce stress for every passenger as you worry about finding overhead bin space, avoiding the middle seat, trying to sit as close to the front as possible and eye-balling your fellow passengers for seatmates. Heading to the last row avoids the majority of these stressors, making life in the back of the plane nice and simple. I also have some lingering effects from my time and training in the Navy, and I enjoy keeping the view of the entire plane and fellow passengers in front of me so I can consistently see what's going on in our metal tube in the sky.
If you know the back row is waiting on you, the consistency and routine can make the experience calmer for all of us.
Lavatories and Flight Attendants Are Right There (Yay for Families)
Back to the traveling family conundrum: I can tell you some stories about my 70+ flights with one or both of my kids over the last 4.5 years where being close to an extra set of hands and the lavatory really came in handy. In 2017, I flew with my wife and two kids — both of whom were under three at the time — from Phoenix (PHX) to Baltimore (BWI). About 15 minutes into the three-and-a-half hour flight, my son got sick and proceeded to fill up my lap, his lap and his entire car seat with the remnants of breakfast and the previous night's dinner. Let me tell you: It was awesome having the lavatory and flight attendants offering help right there next to me instead of us being somewhere in the middle of the plane.
This can also be incredibly helpful for anyone with medical issues or a traveler that just needs an extra set of hands; many of us have been there ourselves or with family members.
Better Chance at Claiming the Open Seat
The "Southwest Shuffle" is a fun game that passengers often play when boarding one of the airline's 737s. I use every tool publicly available to try and gauge the flight load — which tells me how many empty seats to expect. Once I board into the last row on a plane that isn't sold out, the shuffle begins, where my goal is to make sure that any empty seat ends up next to me.
Now, I've seen some pretty egregious seat-saving tactics to win the shuffle, but in reality, hardly anyone wants to sit in the last row. Your odds of scoring the empty seat next to you in the last row — a seat that doesn't recline — is stellar when you add in the fact any late boarders who give the plane a glimpse and see it apparently full will grab the first seat they can.
I'm an expert at winning the Southwest Shuffle when I sit on the aisle and put my son in the window seat — since his head is not visible to an unsuspecting boarder. A weary traveler already bummed about the prospect of sitting in the rear of the plane comes upon us, sees the unfortunate combination (kid + last row) and promptly turns around to pick an alternate middle seat further up. End result: We get the empty seat.
Shield the Rest of the Plane From Meltdowns
This rationale is straight-forward, and just about any parent can relate. Kids have meltdowns, and kids get tired. When I put my family in the last row, I've shielded as much of the plane as possible from any potential tantrums.
(Side note: Feel free to also use this reason if you have a difficult travel companion and think the rest of the plane would benefit from some distance.)
Pro Tip: Choose Port or Starboard Carefully
The last row is great, but if you want to be a true, last-row pro, you need to consider your flight direction and time of day. This ensures you can keep the rising or setting sun off your side of the plane. Many of us enjoy an open window but don't want to inhibit screen viewing, disrupt napping kids or blind passengers across the row from you with screen reflections. If you're flying south in the morning, sit on the starboard side — the left side as you're walking down the aisle toward the back of the plane.
(I understand aviators don't particularly use port and starboard for a plane, but I do because #FlyNavy.)
Apply to Other Airlines
While no other airlines have open seating policies like Southwest, I still try to use this tactic when flying any carrier, but it's particularly applicable on low-cost carriers. I don't pay for seat assignments for Frontier and Spirit flights if the plane looks like it will have open seats. I will typically be the very last person to board and head straight to what hopefully will be an empty back row. Everyone else has taken their assigned seats and the glorious empty last row is waiting for me to spread out and enjoy my Netflix download.
Even when I'm by myself on a Southwest flight, I find myself heading for (and subsequently enjoying) the comfort of the last-row routine. I also often win the empty seat game and largely enjoy quick chats with the Southwest flight crews, who are some of the most pleasant and relaxed in the air today.
A few of you probably still think this sounds like the worst experience possible, and I agree it doesn't replace a Qatar Qsuite or Japan Airlines first class flight. However, those products just aren't possible for short, domestic hops like Atlanta (ATL) to Houston (HOU). Next time you hear your Southwest boarding group called, head back to that empty last row and enjoy the stress free flight in #KerrClass — but if you catch a glimpse of me at the boarding gate, don't occupy the last row before I can.