Airline hears `moos'

Southwest Airlines' tryout of assigning seats to passengers in lieu of its cattle call has some putting their hooves down

June 23, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

Actually, some folks do like the cattle call.

When Southwest Airlines' chief executive wrote this week on the company blog that it soon plans to test assigned seating on several flights from San Diego, it got a surprising rush of responses that were mostly in favor of keeping the signature first-come, first-served system.

The nation's sixth-largest airline has long depended on the system to speed the boarding process that allows it to fly more planes and make more money. But executives also have maintained that a few people actually like it, which has drawn smirks from aviation experts and passengers who have likened it to a junior high school bus line or feeding time on the farm.

But after Southwest executives get the feedback from devotees, they may find they have to calm fears about dumping the system. Southwest remains the only major carrier not assigning seats.

"Boo! Hiss! NO! NO! NO! No reserved seating," one blogger wrote yesterday, one of about three dozen responses that came within 24 hours of Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary C. Kelly's posting the news.

"When I would say `Everyone is doing it' as a kid, I remember my mom would say, `If everyone is jumping off a bridge, would you do it, too?' Don't become like the other airlines by offering reserved seating," the blogger wrote.

Many of the responses came from business travelers who said they liked the system because they can book at the last minute and still get a window or aisle seat.

Others wanted to choose a seat away from screaming kids. Some responses suggested such things as creating a first-class section for people who want seat assignment.

One passenger/blogger from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where Southwest is the dominant carrier, reported using the current system to get an emergency exit row seat for its extra legroom.

The Web log, or blog, www.blogsouthwest.com, was launched in April by the airline to allow workers and passengers to vent, praise or otherwise comment on all things Southwest. The company named the site "Nuts about Southwest," and an airline spokeswoman acknowledged yesterday that it probably does attract more fans than detractors.

There have been postings on turbulence (24 responses), restrictions on flights from the airline headquarters at Dallas Love Field (18 responses) and preparing for hurricanes and Flag Day (2 responses each.) But Wednesday's posting about the assigned-seating tests drew more responses than any other item in a single day. After 32 hours, there were 48 responses from 42 people, including a few employees. Two were in favor of assigned seating.

Kelly wrote that, over time, assigned seating has been one of the most common requests from customers. But he didn't believe the desire was universal, so the company was taking things slowly. It only recently began updating its reservation system to be capable of assigning seats.

If assigned seating brings in more customers without losing existing customers, and doesn't increase boarding times or costs, "then I don't see a reason not to do it," he wrote. "I haven't given any time frame - just that it won't happen next year."

The airline has been chipping away a bit at the policy by allowing passengers to check in online up to 24 hours in advance to receive priority boarding - something that gave rise to an unaffiliated cottage industry of Web sites offering to do it for passengers for a price. The airline has begun cracking down on those sites.

At the same time, other airlines have tinkered with their boarding procedures to cut time at the gate. Northwest Airlines said this week that it would allow coach passengers to board randomly rather than row by row.

But the airline still assigns seats. "It's something we've offered to customers for a long time, and it's something they've come to expect," said Dean Breest, a Northwest spokesman.

Clearly, some passengers wanted the airline to get the message. "Let me provide some salt in the Kool-Aid being drunk here," began one posting on the Southwest blog. "I hate open seating. Hate it. Feels just like getting on a bus in elementary school, complete with passive-aggressive oafs putting bags and coats on seats to `save them.' ... I will WILLINGLY pay a premium of 20 percent or more to fly in civilized comfort."

Angela Vargo, a spokeswoman for Southwest, said the airline is considering what she called the "very passionate" responses.

She acknowledged her surprise at the number of people opposed to changing to assigned seats. "It's been eye-opening for me and others here," she said. "We launched the blog to get customer feedback. And we got it. All our decisions will be made with it in mind."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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