DALLAS -- Southwest Airlines Co., the largest low-fare carrier, will begin testing seat assignments next month to see whether the process lengthens the time its planes spend on the ground.
Southwest is the only major U.S. carrier that doesn't assign specific seats to passengers. The test will begin July 10 on some flights from San Diego and will last six to eight weeks, the airline said in a memo to employees.
"This evaluation is an important step to determine the feasibility of assigned seating, but this is only a test," said Gary C. Kelly, Southwest's chief executive.
Assigned seating would be the latest change to Southwest's low-cost operations as it tries to head off competition from newer discount airlines.
Southwest, the dominant carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, began its first marketing alliance with another carrier last year, is considering international flights and now uses higher-cost airports such as Denver.
Southwest, the most profitable U.S. airline, is making changes to its reservation system that would enable it to assign seats and abandon first-come, first-served boarding. It has shunned assigned seats to cut boarding time and boost its planes' efficiency.
The company will test several boarding methods using the assigned seats. Customers on about 200 flights will be notified by the airline that they'll be assigned seats and "experience a different boarding process," the memo said.
Travelers won't know when they buy tickets whether they'll be on one of those flights. The airline isn't giving details on the tests.
At present, Southwest passengers are assigned to one of three boarding groups when they check in, and are allowed to select any available seat once they're on the plane.
Southwest has 92 daily nonstop flights from San Diego to 16 cities. The city was selected for the test "because there is a nice mix of short, medium and long-haul flights," said Ed Stewart, an airline spokesman.
Southwest won't make the change unless it's convinced that seat assignments would increase revenue and improve customer service, Kelly said.
The carrier won't change its boarding process in 2006 or 2007, although it may decide the issue this year, Kelly said.
Kelly acknowledges that some passengers won't fly Southwest because they prefer assigned seating, although he said 75 percent prefer the open seating.