Southwest stands pat on its unusual seating system

Nonassigned places help the airline save money

August 22, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Southwest Airlines' brand of travel has been credited with revamping an industry that has come around to many of its discounting ways. But the Dallas-based carrier clings to one practice no one is mimicking.

It remains the lone major airline that won't assign you a seat in advance.

"Changing it is always out there for consideration. But it's worked so well for 33 years, we just continue to do it, although we always look for ways to make things easier," Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman.

The popular carrier has budged just a bit. In its most significant nod to those who dread arriving early to queue at the gate, the carrier recently began allowing passengers to check in via home computer starting at midnight the day of their flight to virtually assure them front-of-the-line status. For now, that's where they, and their passengers, stand.

Simplifying the reservation system - boarding passengers in three groups at the gate rather than assigning seats - saves the airline money, Southwest officials and industry analysts agree. By loading largely on a first-come, first-served basis, passengers arrive earlier, and Southwest can turn around a plane in about 20 minutes, the fastest in the industry. That means each of its 405 jets can fly an average of seven, mostly short-haul, flights a day.

Southwest's system works this way: Passengers are sent to one of three lines based on check-in times, "A" being the first to board. Then come the "B" and "C" lines, whose members often are stuck with the dreaded middle row, sometimes away from family and their carry-on luggage. The elderly, disabled and families with small children skip the lines and board first.

Imitation has limits

While other airlines have adopted Southwest practices such as cutting fares and food, they do not seem interested in lining up passengers like school kids on a field trip. The system creates built-in anxieties, with couples or families sometimes split up and prevented from traveling next to one another. Also, the value of an "A" pass tends to be unpredictable, especially if many passengers remain on a connecting flight.

However, to the delight of Southwest - which logged $442 million in income last year on $5.9 billion in operating revenue - even the traditionally picky business travelers are getting on board.

"We have lawyers and other professionals as clients, and you would think they would have a problem with it. They tend not to be bothered by it," said Michael Steiner, executive vice president of New York-based Ovation Travel Group, a $300-million-a-year travel management firm with hundreds of corporate clients.

Some frequent flyers are loyal to other carriers because they get free travel and other perks, he said. Others want a first-class seat for a cross-country or trans-Atlantic flight. Southwest does not fly overseas, and all its seats are the same on its Boeing 737s.

About 20 years ago, all airlines had open seating because their reservation systems were not sophisticated enough to have seats assigned in advance by someone outside the airport, said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc., a Port Washington, N.Y.-based airline industry analysis and consulting firm. American Airlines was the first, Mann said, and other major airlines followed.

Carrier computer systems are now sophisticated enough to enable passengers to address a host of needs through the carrier's Web site or through outside providers such as a travel agent or an online service. Providers typically charge fees for each process they perform, including seat assignments and changes to those assignments. Also, the carriers need vast, maintenance-heavy databases with bandwidth able to communicate with providers.

"Southwest concluded that the added complexity and costs [of assigned seats] are not worth the effort," Mann said. "Since customers don't seem to avoid them, despite the lack of that key point of difference between them and other airlines, they judge the system to be a net positive."

Reservation systems

For competitors who offer seat reservations to their passengers, and who have installed the appropriate technology, there's no reason to turn to open seating, he said. Most major airlines stop booking seats once a certain percentage is sold so they have wiggle room when they oversell an airplane. Other low-fare carriers have their own twists on advance seating.

For example, Orlando, Fla.-based Air Tran will allow its premium-seating customers to book a seat in advance and allow everyone else to secure one at the airport or 24 hours in advance online. Tad Hutcheson, an airline spokesman, said customers prefer an assigned seat.

Several Southwest travelers interviewed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where Southwest controls about half the flights, knew to arrive early, they said.

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