AirTran last July began boarding passengers by zones: a few rows in front, a few rows in back, then the front again, and so on. The airline also added larger overhead bins to accommodate more "wheely" bags and is testing passenger boarding through the front and rear doors of the airplanes that fly from Florida and other warm-weather markets.
The efforts have cut time, although the airline couldn't immediately provide statistics. None of the airlines said they would consider dropping assigned seats.
"It's something our customers really like, especially our business customers, who represent about half our customers," said Judy Graham-Weaver, an AirTran spokeswoman. "We certainly see it as a priority."
Bryan Baldwin, a JetBlue spokesman, said assigned seats help make for a more comfortable flight. Also, if prices are about the same on the discount airlines, then customers will "certainly look at the different amenities."
Southwest's Nealon said the airline realizes that. While the seating experiment became a public spectacle Monday as reporters swarmed the gate to witness the first Southwest flight with assigned seats, the airline is quietly studying other services for customers. That includes onboard entertainment, Nealon said.
Even passengers who didn't mind open seating said they are happy to hear about the experiment, as the system causes a mad dash to check in and get into line. It also sometimes spawns a fuss at the gate, because passengers save multiple spots in line for others or use luggage as placeholders in violation of security rules.
"If they can't monitor the boarding process then they need to assign seats," Jerry Nowlin of Crownsville, who makes about 20 trips a year, up to half on Southwest, said last week. "People should not be allowed to cut in line, shove people, assault people, leave bags unattended and act disrespectful."
Some passengers said they appreciate that the open seating helps the airline stay on time. Mike Helfmann, a flight attendant on Lufthansa catching a ride on Southwest last Monday, said he has never seen an airline load so fast.
"It seems to really work for the airline," he said. "Everyone is trying different things, but Southwest has a good plan. Maybe I can say that because I don't care if I get an assigned seat."
The airline said assigned seating is not inevitable. Southwest will continue to test several different boarding methods and evaluate the consequences.
That deliberate contemplation of changes to the formula in place for 35 years, and the airline's resistance to making snap decisions, make Southwest successful, said Richard D. Gritta, a business professor and airline expert at the University of Portland.
But, he said, the airline has to at least explore assigned seating.
"Usually, people say, `If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' and people are still filling Southwest planes," Gritta said. "But [airline officials] see the competition catching up a bit, so they have to play the scenarios."