Flying With Open Seating – The Cattle Call

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14/02/08 – Flying With Open Seating – The Cattle Call

With today being Valentine’s Day, my post was inspired by Southwest Airlines (WN). Why Southwest Airlines? Simple, the airlines New York Stock Exchange symbol is “LUV” and Southwest Airlines calls Dallas Love Field it’s home. OK, not so romantic, but it’s the best I can do tying Valentine’s Day into flying.

Many European low cost carriers (LCC) have done away with assigned seating. This system of boarding has moved through the Asian LCCs and is most notable in the United States on Southwest Airlines. The biggest problem we as photographers face in a “cattle call” is not only seat choice and comfort, but we run the risk of losing overhead bin space.

More often than not most photographers I know travel with backpacks over the legal carry on weight limits. We do all sorts of things to get our bags past the weigh in check for carry on baggage. We take bodies and lenses out to carry them on our shoulders, stuff lenses in or pockets, take our laptop out and pretend to be checking out connecting flight as the bag is weighed all in an effort to get the bag on board (well this happens mostly happens in Europe and Asia). Once we get past security and up to the gate we reload our bag and try and find a spot in the overhead bins.

While we can place bags at our feet under the seat in front of us, realistically, it is difficult to get a Think Tank Airport Security, LowePro Nature Trekker or Mountainsmith Parallax under the seat in front of you (although I have), so our bags must go in the overhead. Making the problem more difficult is the narrow overhead bins on the all too common Boeing 737-series aircraft flown by many LCC airlines (the airbus A320-series bins tend to be a bit bigger) which makes the space in the overhead bins even more important.

The best way to avoid having a problem is to check in online. When flying on Southwest Airlines I try and check in 24 hours in advance at home and print my boarding pass. I have also checked- in online, then picked up my boarding pass at the airport upon arrival if I am unable to print my boarding pass. By checking in as soon as possible you end up with the highest boarding zone in an A/B/C or 1/2/3 boarding system Even if you are the last person to board in “Zone A” you are still on board before all the “Zone B” and “Zone C” passengers. While this may not be ideal, it still allows you to quite a bit of overhead bin space.

Some airlines, not many, but some, including Southwest Airlines have a media pre-boarding policy. This policy is for credentialed media, however as a professional photographer with a bag loaded with professional equipment, you can at times have the gate agent allow you a pre-boarding card to allow you on to secure your gear ahead of the rest of the passengers. You will board after all the wheelchairs and kids and those needing help, but you still board ahead of Zone A. There are some restrictions to this, but it is helpful at times on a very full flight when you have a bag loaded to the maximum capacity it will hold and you cannot have it checked under.

Think ahead, plan your flights. When you can book flights that have lighter passenger loads. For U.S. flights you can check multiple dates and flights for passenger loads to make an educated case on passenger loads by visiting Seat Counter, Traveling this way, when possible can really cut down on stress!

For some quick entertainment on how to board with less stress during an LCC‘s Cattle Call Boarding visit Southwest Airline’s Boarding School at

Happy Flying!


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