Once upon a time in 2010, Southwest messed up but good. They kicked a fat guy off a plane in a ham handed decision to unevenly apply their rule about larger passengers who encroach on other seats.
They picked the wrong fat guy, because that happened to be Kevin Smith of Mallrats and Dogma fame. He’s a fat guy with a rabidly loyal fan base and a mouth more like Jay than Silent Bob. So, seriously bad move on their part.
On the other hand, every business will eventually publicly make a horrible decision (United anyone?), so what will set them apart is how they fix the issue.
Southwest claimed at the time to have a written policy, and their FAQ says their policy has been in place 30 years. I don’t know. I don’t really need to do that much research on the past when I know they are getting it right today.
Today, Southwest has a clear policy that is easy to find, and actually makes sense, and has worked for me exactly as advertised.
If you need a third seat, you can negotiate at the counter with staff and they may, or may not have one to issue you. Flights these days are often packed completely full. Also, with their boarding method, it doesn’t guarantee you early boarding if you check in later. So the only other spare seat may be in a different row, which is not useful and awkward and embarrassing to fix.
Buy a third seat. Just do it. And when you get home from your trip, call Southwest, give them your details, and they will refund the cost. In full. Super easy. You’ll get your money back in about a week. No fuss, no hassle.
A third seat will guarantee you have the space you need. You’ll even get an extra boarding pass that says reserved seat that you can discretely place in the empty so the Fight Attendants all know why that seat is empty and not include it in the empty count on a full flight.
Your third seat will also allow you priority boarding, meaning you skip the lines and you can pick your spot. It will allow one companion to join you in priority boarding, so you can claim your whole row (not the exit row, don’t be ridiculous) with minimal fuss.
I know it’s an extra expense up front, but it is worth it. My stress levels about travel have fallen dramatically. I have never had a Southwest employee be anything less than professional and pleasant about what I need, and frankly, my extra seat is more comfortable for everyone.