During a recent discussion with a group of wheelchair travelers in the United States, I posed the question — which airline is your favorite? The participants named a number of carriers, but the majority preferred Southwest Airlines.

This wasn’t the first time that I heard praise for Southwest from wheelchair users, but I wanted to dig deeper. What about the airline’s service offering set them apart? The answer may (or may not) surprise you.

Southwest Airlines aircraft parked on tarmac.
Southwest Airlines aircraft parked on tarmac.

Southwest offers two free checked bags with every fare — was that the difference? “Southwest’s fares are typically higher than other airlines I’ve checked,” said one respondent. Indeed, in my own experience, Southwest is rarely the better deal on airfare. With the introduction of Basic Economy, American Air or Delta almost always win out on price, and no-frills carriers like Frontier and Spirit can also present a great value proposition.

Does Southwest treat wheelchairs better than other carriers? Multiple people recalled incidents of wheelchair damage when flying on Southwest, and data from the DOT suggests that Southwest is one of the worst abusers of wheelchairs and scooters. But no one complained about the airline’s handling of repairs. “The staff understood that it was a priority,” said one participant.

Iconic Southwest heart emblem on aircraft's bulkhead wall.
Iconic Southwest heart emblem on aircraft’s bulkhead wall.

For an airline that uses a heart in its logo, you would expect customer service to be high-quality. But one WheelchairTravel.org reader, who was not part of this panel, reported a shocking experience with the carrier earlier this year. Southwest refused to transport a vital piece of mobility equipment, in what I believe was an ACAA violation. Fortunately, JetBlue stepped in to save the day.

Southwest’s secret sauce isn’t low cost fares (there are better deals elsewhere), better handling of wheelchairs (they’re 2nd worst) or improved customer service, so what makes them popular?

Interior of Southwest Airlines aircraft.
Cabin interior of Southwest Airlines aircraft.

Southwest Airlines has only one class of service (economy) and does not issue seat assignments. It’s a first come, first serve free-for-all with seat selection. If you board early, you’ll have your pick of the cabin. And, as it happens, disabled flyers are entitled to preboard the aircraft before all other passengers.

That means wheelchair users can select the seat that works best for them, without having to pay an extra fee or argue with gate agents about the Air Carrier Access Act. Manual wheelchair users can roll right onto the aircraft and transfer into a seat in the first row. Window, aisle, first row, last row, left side, right side — it’s the disabled passenger’s choice.

That’s something to love, right?

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