This Examiner flew west by Southwest on August 30, sampling the airline's and airports' services, starting at Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport (MKE) and flying, with a connecting flight in Las Vegas (LAS), to San Francisco (SFO).
I paid the extra $10 for EarlyBird Check-In and arrived on the upper level of Mitchell Airport's main terminal just as Concourse D was opening, at 4:30 a.m. for the 6:10 departure. The nearby kiosk spit out the boarding passes for both my flights in a hassle-free manner, and I was relieved to see I was assigned me a place near the end of the first boarding group A.
The passage through the security checkpoint was speedy and uneventful. I found the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers friendly, though I was pulled aside briefly for an Explosives Trace Detection swab test that took only seconds.
But after sailing rhough the security checkpoint I became distracted online -- because the Internet connection was fast and strong there -- and I focused on writing an article (ten minutes longer than I had intended to) a short distance from my gate (Southest uses D52 and D56, just to the right of the D Concourse clock). So I missed the group A boarding calls, and thus slightly messed-up my first-ever experience with Southwest's unique unassigned seat system.
Southest assigns a boarding group and number based upon the date and time tickets are purchased, except for upgrades: EarlyBird Check-In (assigned to boarding group A) and Business Select (assigned A1-15, plus perks). Gate agents prompt passengers to line up according to the letters and numbers on their boarding pass.
I could see the boarding process was progressing smoothly as I sheepishly showed my group A pass midway though group B's boarding. But I found a window seat a few rows from the front anyway, and chose to sit though I noticed aisle seats, my usual preference, still available not too far back. This flight appeared to be about half-full.
As the plane-push began, I realized, dismayed, I had missed a rare opportunity to snap wonderful pictures sunrise pictures of the airport ramp because I had buried my camera too deep to reach within my briefcase, though it was under the seat in front of me.
Because I have worked as a ramp agent, I never check-in luggage, so I will not be able to review Southwest's baggage handling.
The spaces under the seats in this Boeing 737-700 -- new enough to still emit a "new plane smell"-- all appeared to be plenty large, generous enough to accommodate the thickest briefcases, I noted, as we taxied and took-off on schedule into the pink, partly cloudy skies. We flew within sight of Milwaukee's south shore, over Cudahy and nearby suburbs, the turned westward.
On this flight to Las Vegas (LAS) (that took just under four hours) the staff was upbeat, cheery and efficient and passed out extra treats and offered coffee refilled before my cup was close to empty. As soon as the seatbelt sign was turned off, I dug out my digital camera.
The connecting flight from Las Vegas to San Francisco, a "full-boat," was delayed 45 minutes because SFO was fogged-in. There were no extra treats, but we arrived only a half-hour delayed.
This journey was a positive experience overall, and I saw no sign of flight attendant or gate agent rudeness, though during the boarding of both flights, repeated announcements in a firm tone urged passengers to choose a seat quickly.
Well, actually, there was this one Las Vegas Southwest Airlines ramp agent (who happened to be inside instead of outside) who didn't seem to want to spend just a moment simply pointing me in the right direction as I exited the jetway into the extremely crowded, confusingly loud concourse B at McCarran International Airport, and instead preferred to begin, in enthusiasm-withering haughty tones, a lecture about being observant when I travel and following signs.
But, as I said, I could tell he worked as a ramp agent, and so I suppose he was unaccustomed to (and perhaps even untrained for) direct customer service.
Stand-by for my review of the return flights.