Oct. 25, 2012 at 9:20 AM ET
To be among the first passengers to board a plane is often so crucial to keeping your sanity while flying that many travelers are willing to pay for it.
But what if you could have an edge over other fliers for free?
A recent Stanford University computer science graduate who came up with a way to boost passengers’ odds of boarding early on Southwest Airlines flights found lots of takers, but also drew scrutiny from the airline, which ordered him to shut down the project.
“It was funny because I actually didn’t think that anyone wanted to use this at all. I literally thought that it was something no one cared about,” Nikil Viswanathan told NBC News.
He was wrong. Thousands of travelers were captured by Viswanathan’s simple idea: to automatically check in for a Southwest flight the second you are able to, thereby improving your chances in the carrier’s first-come, first-serve competition for boarding times.
Viswanathan, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., began the project while visiting his sister on the East Coast earlier this year. He kept forgetting to check in for his flights, so Viswanathan, 25, decided to create a tool that would automatically do it for him on Southwest – the airline he flies most. It took him less than an hour to write the code, which he incorporated on his website, Checkintomyflight.com.
Here’s how it worked:
Southwest passengers don’t receive assigned seats, but they board in groups that are labeled either A, B or C, with the A group boarding first and getting the pick of overhead bin space and the best seats.
Passengers who buy Business Select fares are guaranteed an A boarding pass, while Southwest’s frequent fliers and travelers willing to pay a $10 fee for “EarlyBird Check-In” are checked in before everyone else, boosting their chances of getting into the A group. The rest dukes it out starting at 24 hours before departure.
Passengers who used Viswanathan’s website would be checked in the moment the process opened, virtually guaranteeing a spot in the A boarding group. There was no charge for the service.
Viswanathan unveiled the website on his Facebook page on October 2. It was featured on Hacker News three days later, and then picked up by two travel blogs. More than 10,000 people have visited Checkintomyflight.com since and about 1,500 flights have been entered into the site.
“People were getting really, really good boarding passes,” Viswanathan said. “This is a much better experience than trying to wake up in the middle of the night or the early morning, remembering to check in.”
But Viswanathan also soon heard from Southwest, which sent him a cease and desist letter last week. Programs like his violate the company’s terms and conditions of use, he found out.
“Southwest places a very high value on customer service and our personal relationship with customers,” said spokeswoman Katie McDonald in a statement to NBC News. “By intruding on that relationship and removing a touch point with the customer, check-in sites take away the ability for Southwest to provide its services in accordance with its policies and legendary personal touch.”
Viswanathan said he suspects Southwest is most upset that passengers who used his website didn’t see the ads on the airline’s check-in page.
He shut down Checkintomyflight.com on Wednesday, even though travelers have put in flights all the way until May of 2013. He’s hoping Southwest will allow him to honor those requests.
The project has even garnered Viswanathan a job offer from Expedia. He has declined, preferring to work on his “own stuff,” he said.