In the frequent travel game, one of the things you hear all the time is that you need to pick an airline and stick with it. Only by consistently traveling with the same carrier will you be able to achieve wonderful things like 4 extra inches of legroom and the occasional upgrade to Business Class.
Since I’m near Denver, I picked United, and stuck with them for years, as the bar to get frequent flyer status got higher and higher and the perks got fewer and fewer. Occasionally I had to fly other carriers. Delta was fair. Alaska and Frontier were pretty good. USAir was uniformly ghastly.
Last summer I discovered Southwest. Southwest hadn’t made it onto my radar screen for a couple of reasons. Their flights are not included in the major air travel search engines. They were originally a budget carrier, and in my mind “budget” equals “really terrible for people with disabilities”. When a friend who also uses a wheelchair told me that, in his opinion, Southwest was the best domestic carrier for wheelchair users, I had trouble believing him.
But I figured I’d give it a shot. I have now taken over a dozen Southwest flights, and he was right. Here’s why.
The aisle chair
Planes have narrow aisles, too narrow for even the smallest wheelchair. In order to get you from the door of the plane to your comfy seat in row 37, you will be strapped into this narrow wheeled contraption like an unruly parcel and dragged backwards down the aisle. Not on Southwest. Southwest does not have First or Business Class, and all their planes are 737s. This means that you can push your own manual wheelchair onto the plane, right to the first row of seats, and if you are relatively nimble, you can transfer directly to seat 1D. No aisle chair involved.
But what if I can’t get a seat assignment for 1D, I hear you cry? No worries, chickadee, because Southwest has no seat assignments. Instead of assigning seats, Southwest assigns boarding order (generally based on when you check in). As a wheelchair user, you board first, so the only competition you will have for seat 1D is other pre-boarders, or what Southwest calls “through passengers”, people who were already on the plane from a previous leg and who are continuing on with that plane. Other pre-boarders are unlikely to be non-ambulatory wheelchair users, and while they may grumble at not being allowed to take seat 1D (“but I always sit here!”), the flight attendants will chase them away. (If there is another non-ambulatory wheelchair user, I guess you two will have to flip a coin, and they’ll have to break out the aisle chair for the loser.)
The employee culture
Southwest prides itself on having friendly flight crews, and with very few exceptions, it does. On every flight, I’ve been asked how they can best help me. On United, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of flight attendants who remembered over the course of the flight that I was a wheelchair user. This meant awkward explanations when I asked a flight attendant to get down my bag, or needed to use the restroom, or when other passengers complained that I wouldn’t stand up so that they could get into their seats. It meant worrying on every single flight that there would be an aisle chair at my destination, or that anyone would let me know that my wheelchair had been brought up. It meant that flight attendants would glare at me as they tried to leave the plane, not understanding why I was still sitting there. On Southwest, I’m sitting right up there in 1D, and the flight attendants don’t seem to forget.
What are the disadvantages? Southwest doesn’t serve food, only peanuts and pretzels. Seat 1D is a bulkhead seat, so there is no storage under the seat in front of you. The bulkhead seats don’t have tray tables (not even in the armrest), so you have to figure out how to hold your little plastic cup of seltzer (which you’re only having one of, so you won’t have to use the restroom, right?). I really can’t think of any others.