First-come, first-served? Southwest might drop it

July 11, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

ABOARD SOUTHWEST AIRLINES FLIGHT 2444 -- The first flight from Kitty Hawk it wasn't.

But to many regular air travelers, it was a milestone of near proportions.

Southwest Airlines chose the flight from San Diego to Phoenix yesterday morning to assign seats to all 116 passengers - a first for an airline that has long rewarded those who arrive early with their choice of seats.

So when Donald Cloo checked in and learned that he was seated in 19C, the Phoenix truck driver became the first test subject in a trial that could change the 35-year-old company's cultural identity.

The flight was a 70-minute hop between neighboring states, and was only the inaugural flight in a six- to eight-week seating experiment. But if all goes smoothly, it might come to represent the end of first-come, first-served seating on Southwest - and in mainstream air travel altogether.

Southwest is the only large U.S. carrier that does not assign seats, despite boarding more domestic passengers than any other major airline. It controls nearly half the market at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Southwest executives have long resisted assigning seats, saying that the "open seating" system has helped the airline grow and stay profitable during turbulent economic times by enabling planes to spend more time in the air and less at the gate. But they also acknowledge that assigned seats are the No. 1 request from customers.

Most passengers said yesterday that they didn't mind being human test subjects, though some were telling anyone who would listen that they were happy with the present system.

"They're destroying the Southwest experience," said Cloo, who was the first person to receive a boarding pass on the First Flight. "This is taking half the fun out of the game of getting a seat."

Southwest did not disclose the flight number for its First Flight or any other with assigned seats to anyone - except a throng of reporters and photographers who showed up at the gate yesterday morning to document the inaugural event.

Passengers were called and e-mailed 48 hours in advance and told to see a gate attendant for their seat assignment. For the trial, passengers did not get to choose for themselves, which airline die-hards found very un-Southwest.

The experiment gave Gate 1 an air of chaos for about an hour and a half before the flight as passengers found their way to one of several agents, who thumbed through stacks of boarding passes with names on them. Already dismayed and confused, the passengers had not only their beloved choice taken but their peace, as reporters and Southwest employees alternately tried to interview and placate them with free ice cream and free drink coupons.

A number of people have come forward to plead with the airline to save open seating, including a big percentage of the people flying yesterday. But it is more often the butt of jokes by customers and industry observers who liken boarding to a "cattle call" and Southwest planes to Greyhound buses of the sky.

Under open seating, passengers board in three groups, depending on when they check in. Those who go early to the airport or check in online up to 24 hours in advance generally get an "A" pass to board first. Then, two more groups herd aboard and pick seats from what's left.

The airline won't change the system before 2008, when its reservation system is upgraded. During the experiment, the airline plans to test several boarding methods to see whether they lengthen the time between flights. Yesterday's inaugural flight sat for 21 minutes between flights - four minutes less than the average for the airline.

Passengers still boarded in three groups, and even with seat assignments, many seemed unable to stop themselves from lining up in advance. Once aboard, nearly everything seemed normal, except for the ABC-TV reporter and cameraman dueling for aisle space with the flight attendant and her drink cart.

"The process went as quickly as it normally does," said Kennina Cunningham, a flight attendant. "Everybody was pretty open to the experiment."

All of the flights in the test will depart from San Diego International Airport. It was picked because the weather is good, the airport isn't too crowded, and it offers a mix of short, medium and long-haul flights, said Brandy King, a Dallas-based Southwest spokeswoman, who spent yesterday in San Diego monitoring flights.

Southwest's second flight with assigned seats boarded in less than 20 minutes before heading to Las Vegas at 4:30 p.m. The airline plans to assign seats on three flights today.

Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly, who announced the experiment on Southwest's corporate blog June 21, said no decision has been made on changing the boarding system.

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