For years, Leo Elias set his alarm clock for midnight whenever he was booked to fly on Southwest Airlines the next day. Jangled out of bed, he would stumble over to his computer to print out a boarding pass. It was the ritual he and other Southwest passengers had to endure to ensure that they would be among the first to board, with their choice of seats and an empty overhead bin for their bags.
Because Southwest doesn't issue seat assignments, passengers board in the order in which they check in and get their boarding passes. The first 45 passengers to check in board first, followed by a second group of 45, with a third group following them.
Southwest's check-in and boarding policies provoked some of the most constant complaints from passengers. So the airline last month expanded the window for flight check-in on its Web site. Instead of the midnight before departure, travelers can now check in and print their boarding passes 24 hours before their flight.
It's a welcome change for some passengers but not good enough for Elias.
He now uses the services of Boardfirst.com. For $5 per flight, Boardfirst.com checks passengers in and assures them of boarding with the first group.
"Time is money, and at the convenience end of it, when you're paying a hundred or so dollars for a flight, an extra $5 more isn't that much more," said Elias, a Phoenix-based human resources manager.
Kate Bell, a Southwest frequent flier herself, created Boardfirst.com to serve as a personal travel assistant for Southwest passengers. She came up with the idea after standing in line with other Southwest passengers who were complaining about the hassle of ensuring that they were among the first to get a boarding pass. She launched Boardfirst in July after teaming up with Web designer James Adams. It has two other employees.
Bell said many of her customers rely on her company more for their return flights than for their departures. "If you're in a business meeting or somewhere where you can't get to your computer in time, we'll check in for you," she said.
Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart said he was "bewildered" by the niche. "Is someone that busy that they don't have time to print out the boarding pass for themselves for free?" he said. He added that the airline discourages its customers from sharing their flight and personal information with sites other than Southwest's.
Travelers sign in with Boardfirst and pay $5 up to 48 hours before their flight. The Web site will then check passengers in with the first group or the service is free. In place of the travelers themselves, Boardfirst checks in passengers during the 24-hour window Southwest provides. Customers are sent an e-mail notifying them that their boarding pass is ready, and they can either print it out from their computer or pick it up at the airport.
Another Web company similar to Boardfirst.com is Boardingpassbuddy.com. The company, which charges $15 per flight, gets passengers early boarding on Southwest and other airlines. It also arranges seat assignments on some airlines. Its software must be downloaded onto a personal computer. The company, which started in the summer, is hoping to shift away from the software-download format to a Web site by June.
Edmund Har, the company's president, described his service as being in a testing phase.
"It's for the business traveler who wants to go to one place to have all of his check-ins done for him. It's a way to make their lives a little more simplistic," Har said.
He said his service is aimed at travelers who have five or six segments of travel a week and won't have time to check each time on their own.
Elite members of airline frequent-flier programs won't have a need for the service, however; these travelers are assured early check-in and seat assignments because of their status.
Har says Boarding Pass Buddy has about "a couple hundred" paid customers; he says about 1,000 users have downloaded its software. He says the company has two employees who monitor e-mails and service travelers' concerns.
Both Boardfirst.com and Boarding Pass Buddy have advertised on search engines and travel sites such as Google and Flyertalk.com.
While the companies bill themselves as time-saving travel tools, spokesmen for Delta, American and United said passengers should use these services at their own risk. Travelers can perform the same functions on the airlines' Web sites for free, the carriers say. The airlines stressed that the boarding-pass sites had no affiliation with them and that relying on them for seat assignments could be a gamble.