Now, a fee for Southwest: $10 to board first

The airline, which has conspicuously avoided piling fees on its passengers, starts the EarlyBird check-in program Thursday. It needs the money to try to soften a rare money-losing year.

David Zalubowski/ AP
A tug pushes a Southwest Airlines airliner away from a gate at SeaTac Airport in SeaTac, Washington, in this June 11 file photo. Beginning on Thursday Southwest starts the EarlyBird check-in program.

Fans of Southwest Airlines's folksy and egalitarian ways are in for a culture shock: From now on, customers who pay an extra $10 will get a head start on boarding.

Southwest is known for its unusual free-for-all approach to seat selection. No assigned seats. People who doggedly print out boarding passes 24 hours ahead of their flight will be among the first to board the plane and find lots of window or aisle spots to choose from.

Now, those original early birds will board after the fliers who pay the fee for so-called EarlyBird Check-in.

The change affects travel starting Thursday, in what some analysts see as a sign of that Southwest is scrambling to keep its business aloft. They say the tough economic climate will make this a money-losing year for Southwest after more than three decades of profits.

"With EarlyBird Check-in, you no longer need to watch the clock or set your alarm to be one of the first" to check in, Southwest marketing chief Kevin Krone said in a news release on Wednesday.

Southwest remains one of the nation's most successful air carriers, but the whole industry is struggling to make ends meet.

The past year has been a time of slimming down on the number of flights and routes – and often introducing new fees or jacking up old ones.

Some airlines are adding charges for routine things that used to be free, like checking a bag. Others offer a growing range of optional fees, such as for upgraded seating or service. JetBlue customers can pay extra for more legroom, for example.

The EarlyBird program also comes at a time when many travelers are frustrated with airlines and airports in general. Airfarewatchdog, a travel-deal website, argues that things have gotten so bad that some new regulation of the industry is needed on fees, schedule interruptions, and refunds. The site's founder, George Hobica, argues that planes should have to return to the terminal and let passengers off if they get stuck on the runway for more than three hours, for example.

In its news release, Southwest says it "continues to stand above other airlines – offering a reliable product with exemplary Customer Service."

The airline has bucked industry trends in many ways over the years. Despite its new boarding system, Southwest remains different for what it's not doing on its bag-check policy. You can still check two bags for free.

At least for now.

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