Back when I wrote a four part post on Mobile Transcoding Services I used the Southwest Airlines web page as one of the sites to test transcoding services. At that time Southwest was the only major US airline that did not have a mobile web site. Southwest has finally noticed the growing demand for mobile travel information. Their site is rather basic at this point with only a single function, Online Check-in. This is a very usefully and important feature especially for Southwest. To understand why you have to know a little bit about how Southwest’s check-in and boarding process works. Southwest is an extremely successful and profitable low fare airline. Their ratings in customer satisfaction and on-time performance consistently lead the industry. One of their innovations which reduces delays and unprofitable time on the ground is unreserved seating. There are no assigned seats on any Southwest flight. Passengers are assigned to one of three boarding groups based on their time of check-in. Each group is called to board and passengers can take any unoccupied seat. There aren’t really any terrible seats on Southwest planes but if you want an aisle or are part of a group that wants to sit together you need to be in one of the first two boarding groups. That used to mean getting to the airport early, but sometime ago Southwest instituted online check-in so all you need is access to the web 24 hours before your scheduled departure time when check-ins open for a flight. That works well most of the time but not so well if you don’t have a web enabled computer available to you at the appointed time – we don’t all carry laptops with us when we travel particularly on pleasure trips. Maybe your hotel has a public workstation you can use or maybe not or maybe there is a line of people waiting to use it or maybe you would rather be on the beach. With the ability to check in with a mobile phone Southwest is making it possible for many more people to check-in online.
The actual mobile page is simplicity itself. There are WAP1 and WAP2 versions of the site but they are essentially identical in layout and content. You select Flight Check-in on the front page, enter the confirmation number on your eEicket along with your first and last name and that’s it. It’s a service that’s easy to use and that fills a real need for many travelers. Mobile check-in is a perfect example of the sort of mobile web applications that will drive mobile data adoption. I’m sure some of you are thinking, big deal, that’s so 2001. While it’s true that this could have been implemented in 2001 and would work on the earliest wap phones, that’s not the point. To me the important thing here is this is a mobile data service that is actually very useful to millions of people. It’s intuitive enough that first time users can accomplish a task that has a real payoff in their lives. As such it will introduce many to the mobile web for the first time.
On their website Southwest promises to add more features soon, specifically mentioning Flight Status and Rewards Plan access. I like this quote which shows that Southwest actually “gets” the mobile browsing paradigm, “It is our goal to provide access to features that require only a few steps to complete.”
There is one thing that I think Southwest screwed up. The site uses some extremely aggressive browser detection and redirects any device that it doesn’t recognize to a non-mobile friendly web page about Southwest’s Mobile Access. While it recognizes both my (very popular) phones it doesn’t recognize 6 of the 7 browsers I have installed on my Palm PDA. It also doesn’t recognize the Netfront, Sony Ericsson and Openwave 4.11 emulators nor can I load the mobile page in Firefox after setting the User Agent header to one from a popular phone like the RAZR, something that almost always works. I haven’t been able to find any alternate urls that take you directly to the mobile content so if Southwest doesn’t recognize your phone you are out of luck.
If you are flying – but not on Southwest you can find links to 13 other airline mobile sites in the Travel-Transit/Air Travel/Airlines section of the WapReview directory on your PC or the YesWap mobile portal from your phone. Of these, only three Austrian Airlines, Finnair and Lufthansa offer online mobile check-in!