Southwest fliers pay her to help get a choice seat

Arizona entrepreneur checks passengers in early via computer for $5 fee

October 20, 2005|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

Tom Ponte says he books his frequent business travel on Southwest Airlines' Web site because he's both tech savvy and frugal. But trumping those traits is his desire for an aisle seat, which Southwest, alone among major airlines, won't give out in advance.

So Ponte, the owner of Harris Printing in Phoenix, began paying an extra $5 a flight to a woman he'd heard about from a friend to secure his preferred spot.

Kate Bell launched BoardFirst.com this summer to help travelers like herself and Ponte buck Southwest's open-seating policy. Exploiting a small opening in Southwest's system, Bell does what her customers could conceivably do themselves but often don't have time to: She checks them in online at the first possible moment that the airline allows, to secure them virtual places at the front of the line to board.

"I'm scheduled through November and I don't have to think about it anymore," Ponte said. "I don't have to log on in the middle of the night; I don't have to go to Kinko's in the rain when I'm at a trade show or my computer doesn't work."

Every other major airline has added a seating reservation system in the past two decades. Passengers who once depended on travel agents or airline ticketing agents to lock them into a window or aisle seat far from the restrooms or close to a friend have grown accustomed in the past few years to viewing entire maps of airplane seats online. They usually can lock in a seat when they buy a ticket or, at the very least, when they check in on the airline's Web site.

But passengers who want to pick a seat on a Southwest plane have to queue up early at the airport - a burden for some, but useful in helping the airline use its planes more efficiently and grow into the nation's biggest discount flier. Last year, Baltimore's dominant airline budged a bit and allowed same-day check-in online.

Online check-in afforded the first 45 of about 137 passengers per flight an "A" pass, giving them the first chance to board. Four weeks ago, the airline expanded the check-in window to 24 hours.

Southwest has no plans to further change the system, and is steadfast in the belief that general seating gets people to the airport earlier and boarded faster, keeping its flights running on time. Some passengers like the system because it lets them choose a seat after boarding or gets flights out on time. Others would prefer to be assigned a seat but don't want to pay more for a ticket.

Bell, an interior designer turned entrepreneur, says logging on to her computer in the early morning hours before her flights was wearing on her.

"I was getting up at midnight every week to check in for my 6:30 a.m. flight from Albuquerque to Phoenix to see my then-fiancee," said Bell, who has since moved to Phoenix. "I thought there had to be a better way. ... I'd pay $5 to sleep."

She got her business idea from a man behind her at an airport Starbucks. He said he had a friend whose wife would get up and check him in. Bell figured others were like that. Some people don't always have access to a computer and may need such a service, she thought.

The site, which Bell launched with $500 and the help of a Web designer, is growing mostly by word of mouth but so far logs no more than 10 to 15 customers a day on average.

Southwest's seating system has spawned at least one other attempt, which failed, to create a side business like Bell's.

Southwest officials are uneasy about Bell's site but have not taken legal action.

Partly because of fears of inadequate customer service and partly because it refuses to pay fees to generate reservations, Southwest has never listed its flights on travel agency computers or online fare finders such as Travelocity or Orbitz. Instead, it encourages customers to do all their business directly on Southwest.com. (The airline generated 63 percent of its revenue from bookings at its own site in the second quarter.)

Beyond the quality concerns, Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman, said she was befuddled by Bell's site because the airline caters to the cost-conscious. "If you have a fare that is $49 one way, I don't see why you'd choose to pay $5 for a boarding pass you can print for free," she said.

But Bell contends that the online check-in, which Southwest has not heavily advertised, is no longer a secret. Competition for the "A" boarding passes has meant some days she has clicked in vain for 40 seconds or longer on Southwest's site to check in a customer. (Sometimes her mother or her Web designer does the clicking.)

Once she's successful, her customers can print their boarding pass at home at their leisure, or at the airport from a kiosk before their flight. No "A" pass, no fee.

"No one knows where they'll be 24 hours before a flight," Bell said. "But no one wants to get stuck in a middle seat."

Definitely not Tom Ponte.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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