Southwest Airlines computer glitch denies perk to elite frequent fliers

Southwest Airlines' elite frequent fliers are fuming because a computer glitch is taking away a treasured perk: early boarding.

Boarding position is everything on Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest domestic carrier by passengers, because the carrier famously doesn't assign seats. Passengers are assigned a boarding position in one of three groups (A, B and C) based on check-in time and they choose any open seat when they board.

The earlier you board, the less likely you end up in a middle seat and get shut out of overhead bin space.

Southwest's elite frequent fliers — those who fly at least 50 one-way flights a year for the top "A List Preferred" status or 25 one-way flights for "A List" status, or spend top dollar on tickets or their Southwest Visa cards — are among the first to board.

They are automatically checked in for their flights ahead of other passengers and the most frequent fliers are all but guaranteed an A boarding pass.

Frequent fliers take to social media

Last weekend, many fliers started seeing higher numbers on their boarding passes — some were even, gasp, in the C group — and they weren't happy. Frequent fliers took to Twitter, Flyer Talk and Southwest's online message boards to gripe.

Southwest acknowledges there is a problem. Spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said in a statement that priority check-in and boarding positions for top-tier members of Southwest's Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program are affected.

"This has resulted in boarding positions that are less typical than what our A-List and A-List Preferred Rapid Rewards customers have come to expect,'' she said.

Southwest: We're working to solve the issue

Travelers who buy EarlyBird Check In, Southwest's automatic early check-in option for $15 each way, have not been affected.

Southwest said its technology teams are "working feverishly to resolve the issue.'' It did not provide a timetable for the fix.

The airline didn't mention it in the statement, but its responses on Twitter and some travelers' comments on Twitter and other forums indicate the airline has been manually updating reservations for travelers who notice the problem before they get to the airport. Gate agents are helping where they can and the airline also notes that A List and A List Preferred travelers who don't get in the A group are free to board, as always, after the A group and before the B group.

Southwest travelers are upset that the problem hasn't been quickly resolved. The airline had a massive computer meltdown last summer that still lingers in some travelers' minds. 

One traveler on the FlyerTalk frequent-flier forum said, "As I noted to customer service yesterday, in any crisis, especially one impacting your most loyal and valuable customers, a swift and overwhelming response is best. Not feeling that sort of Luv at the moment."

TODAY IN THE SKY: J.D. Power: Alaska Air, Southwest are the USA's best airlines for 2017

LUV is Southwest's stock symbol and its corporate shorthand.

Other travelers are upset that Southwest didn't notify A List members via e-mail so they could check in online like other passengers, hopefully improving their boarding position.

Southwest debuted a new reservations system in May, a changeover fraught with problems at other airlines, and the airline has largely publicly portrayed it as a success. But on the airline's earnings conference in July, CEO Gary Kelly acknowledged some costly, mostly behind-the-scene glitches. One involved Southwest's last-minute early boarding option sold at the gate; another was with group reservations.

"We expected that we would have some things like that ... but those were just a couple that we didn't anticipate,'' Kelly said.

The airline might have to add A List Preferred and A List priority boarding to the list.

Dawn Gilbertson is a travel reporter at The Arizona Republic. Her content is occasionally featured here in Ben Mutzabaugh's Today in the Sky blog. The Republic is part of the USA TODAY Network.

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