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Did LAX just get a lot better for Southwest positioning flights?

We decided to come back from Cuba. Actually we never went, but working, traveling and family-ing left little time for blogging, a labor of love that hasn’t seen much labor for over a year. But, I stumbled on something that seemed to deserve a post.

The need for positioning flights is one thing that’s often overlooked or underplayed by travelers who have the luxury of a home airport with vigorous competition and available award seats on foreign carriers. I’ve written more about positioning here. For those of us who have families and need more award seats, live in non-hub cities, or live in flyover country, positioning flights are simply part of our traveling-on-the-cheap experience. At 5 minutes from San Antonio airport and an hour from Austin, our family of 4 has to deal with all three of these factors.

Los Angeles International Airport is one of the most likely positioning gateway airports for many of us. Here are just a few scenarios where you might find yourself needing to position to or from LAX:

  • Alaska awards don’t allow flights on multiple partners, so you can’t use an AA flight to LAX followed by a flight on Cathay Pacific, Fiji, Hainan, Japan Airlines, LAN, Qantas, etc. as a single award. Taking advantage of Alaska’s awesome stopover rules, like we’re doing now, requires positioning flights.
  • American award rules require routes where the overwater (or longhaul) carrier publishes a fare. If Fiji, Iberia, Air Tahiti Nui, Etihad or any other partner doesn’t publish a fare from your home airport via LAX, and that’s the only or best option with enough award seats, it’s positioning time!
  • American, Delta and United have all had very poor domestic award space over the past couple years, especially on routes served by regional jets. And even when they do open space, it usually doesn’t dovetail with the needed award space on a partner airline.
  • British Airways distance-based awards often offer the lowest points price from the West coast to Hawaii, but may be a poor option for getting to the West coast, even if award seats do exist.
  • Those $300 fares to Europe? They’re a thing, but usually only from a few cities. Including Los Angeles.

Over the past few years, LAX has re-opened or built airside connectors between terminals that have dramatically improved your ability to connect from one airline to another, as is usually required when positioning. You can now walk from terminal to terminal and connect to and from any Alaska, American, Delta, or United flight as well as nearly all flights on foreign carriers, as most of those depart from the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT). In some cases it might be shorter to just walk to your destination, but at least you can avoid traffic and re-clearing security.

The odd airlines out? Southwest and Delta. The most likely airline for positioning to LAX for many of us? Southwest. The airline with the most positioning-flight-friendly policies? Southwest! Positioning via LAX on Southwest has meant going outside, long walks and/or dealing with traffic if not gridlock, poor signage for those of us not super-familiar with the airport, and, of course, clearing security again. Probably without precheck if connecting to a foreign carrier.

Saturday we left on this summer’s “big” family trip. As schedules opened, we had booked Los Angeles – Hong Kong with a stopover – Tel Aviv on Cathay Pacific with Alaska miles, Tel Aviv – Chicago on Swiss with Aeroplan miles, and positioning flights San Antonio – LAX on Southwest with points and a Companion Pass, Hong Kong – Vietnam and back with cash, and Chicago – San Antonio with BA Avios. Two big awards and four positioning flights, that’s what we expect travelling to and from smaller cities! For this trip, the Cathay flight that worked and had award seats was a Sunday 9:25 A.M. departure. The earliest we could possibly get to LAX was 7:25, and that was on Delta. That’s not nearly enough cushion for a separate positioning flight, especially a non-partner at the start of a trip. So, we opted for a Southwest flight a day before, but not the last flight of the day (having a plan B is good) and then reluctantly booked the 12,000 point room at the LAX Hyatt Place. The value proposition of points hotels near LAX is pretty poor.

This might work out

Making our way of Southwest’s Terminal 1, I saw an unexpected sign that I should’ve taken a picture of. It said something like “Shuttle to Tom Bradley International Terminal” and had an arrow to a door where there’s a podium and steps down to a bus lane! Wait, what? Did LAX Terminal 1 just get a lot more friendly for positioning? There was no one at the podium to ask, but the sign indicated that you could take a shuttle to the TBIT gates Southwest is now using for Mexico and Caribbean flights.

This morning, after breakfast in the oneworld lounge, we found ourselves waiting on delayed boarding for our Cathay Pacific flight. So I ran down to what looks like the end of TBIT, down a ramp to some Southwest and Interjet gates, and down another ramp to more Southwest gates, to see what I could learn. Sure enough, you can walk from the main (newer) part of TBIT to the door where I could see a bus dropping Southwest passengers off. About that time I got paged back to the Cathay counter for a seat change, and didn’t have time to go back and get more answers.

Clearly there is now an operational shuttle running from Terminal 1 to TBIT at LAX. Awesome! I found a Flyertalk thread that makes it seem like it’s been there for a month or more, but not much in the way of details or answers. We need a couple of those answers before we’ll know if this shuttle can be used for positioning, lounge access or anything else that might be cool:

  • Does the shuttle run on a consistent schedule, like only when a Southwest flight is departing TBIT?
  • Can you just walk up and ride the shuttle from T1 to TBIT, or do they require a boarding pass for a Southwest flight leaving TBIT?
  • Can you ride the (likely otherwise empty) bus back from TBIT to T1? If so, this could open up some pretty cool lounge access possibilities, and work well for a positioning connection returning from Hawaii.

What really matters isn’t so much what Southwest might announce, but rather what employees on the ground actually allow and do.

Checking bags

We don’t check bags. If you do, this is all probably kind of moot. Switching airlines on separate tickets, you’ll have to leave security to get your bags, make your way to the check-in counter of your second airline, and deal with security again. Sorry.

Wrapping up

If you happen to be flying to, from or through LAX Terminal 1 or TBIT with some time to kill, I’d love to get answers to some of these questions! Hopefully this new shuttle will make LAX much better for those of us who travel through there using Southwest!

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • John July 6, 2017, 2:01 am

    I asked about going over to the international terminal for lounge access about a month ago and they wouldn’t let me on the bus without a boarding pass so I don’t think it works without one. YMMV though!

  • Chris April 24, 2018, 6:38 pm

    Same. Also I tried to go back from TBIT -> terminal 1 and couldn’t find an employee to ask or the shuttle.

    So despite how much I love southwest, better plan on leaving security.

    Delta will let you take their shuttle without a boarding pass, however.

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