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Honey, don't forget the police baton-- We're flying Southwest

by tommy kirchhoff

Southwest is the single, most stressful airline one can choose. What makes it so uncomfortable? The boarding process.

With any other airline, one sits comfortably reading a book, or talking on the cell phone-satisfied that his or her seat can be had by no one else. On Southwest, a time is announced when passengers may stand in line to receive a boarding pass. Every person with a ticket is guaranteed a seat. But not one of them will just let it happen.

You see, there's some human psychological stymie that compels jockeying for position. Because no seat is reserved for anyone, every passenger regresses back to childhood. They all want to be first in line, they all want shotgun. So they get in line. The counter attendant must repeat to every person in line that it's not yet time to be in line, and to please have a seat. After getting burned by the attendant, people start to "hang around." This creates a high-stress zone around the counter.

The counter attendant begins to heat up. After every third or fourth person in line, she announces over the PA that it is not yet time to stand in line, and to please, please have a seat.

People still want to be first. Their gazes toggle intensely between the counter attendant and the clock. They begin to experience the same level of stress experienced by a CEO of a failing fortune 500 company. People sit on the floor adjacent the counter. Others sit on the edge of their seats-one foot cocked back, ready for push off. Everyone keeps a minimum distance of 15 feet between themselves and the counter. They all know the jockeying will soon begin, and they certainly don't want to miss anything.

After the mind-numbing litany of discouragement, both vocal and amplified, the counter attendant again wonders why she works for Southwest. The vortex of compression pulses around the counter. Some passengers will drift too close; Southwest chick has no problem banging these fools a second time.

Then the moment comes. There wasn't supposed to be a line, but one materializes instantly. Even passengers that weren't paying attention for that fleeting moment kneejerk out of their seats and into position.

The line is four people wide and place-marked with elbows. It's turgid and throbbing; but this pre-flight phase is a kindergarten cakewalk compared to what will come.

The frumpy, plastic boarding passes are issued in turn. Passengers placate like a jungle cat over a fresh kill. The intensity of the moment soothes briefly-that is until the mayhem of pre-boarding.

Minutes before, the blaze rekindles. Southwest passengers rush the gate area, frothing at the mouth. It's a wonder they don't hand out billyclubs for boarding passes. The Southwest Airlines counter attendant calmly announces that "any passengers with small children, or those needing extra assistance may now board." This is the point that the riot starts. 70 year-old men will knock you down to board with the three year-olds. Women with walkers have the right-of-way; but they'll assert this vigorously. They'll rack forward like a chugging bulldozer, knocking both you and the 70 year-old rugby player out of the way.

By now, the counter attendant has ducked down in a corner, tied a band around her bicep, and is madly tapping at an artery. Mothers with infants are smashing their way to the front. Mormons are bribing the gate attendants. The pilots are gulping Jack Daniels like some oceanic 7-11 drink. The murderous intensity of this moment leaves the $60 you saved on your ticket a short-term memory fizzle.

Once you're on the plane, it's pretty much business as usual. The stress is over, and you can certainly find a seat. If you take a look around, you will undoubtedly find that you are a member of some bizarre, character circus. The people that fly Southwest are exceptionally, shall we say, eclectic.

The thing I'm still shaking my head at is the job of the counter attendant. How do they find people for this job? Do they tell them in the interview, "This job is a little stressful, but you can drink or smoke pot before you come inů"

Who knows. But I don't recommend Southwest if you're pregnant, have a heart condition, or you're under 48 inches tall.