Cattle call may stay

Results mixed in Southwest's try at assigned seating

October 06, 2006|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,sun reporter

DULLES, Va. -- Southwest Airlines' chief said yesterday that a summer experiment in assigning seats yielded mixed results and more research is needed to decide whether the carrier can - and should - abandon its distinctive first-come, first-served seating.

Southwest remains the only major airline that does not assign seats in advance on its flights. The airline began testing assignments in July on some flights from San Diego, a move that delighted many passengers and aviation analysts but disappointed die-hard supporters of the cattle call.

Officials assigned the seats at the airport through Labor Day and used several boarding methods. They said Southwest could only change its policy if flights were not delayed, a key to its profitability.

"Some boarding methods were a little faster, most were a little slower," said Southwest's Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly, who visited Washington Dulles International Airport where the airline launched service yesterday.

He said the airline will not make a decision until next year and will likely conduct more research. It will also complete more surveys to determine how many passengers want a seat in advance. That has been the No. 1 request from passengers in recent years. But a surprising number of people have come forward to oppose a change, Kelly said.

Joe Austin, a Northern Virginia resident headed to Las Vegas from Dulles yesterday, echoed some of the messages received recently by Southwest.

"I kind of like seeing what's available and choosing a window or an aisle depending on my mood," Austin said.

But his wife, Katrina, said that when they travel with their two kids they prefer assigned seats.

Southwest will spend 2007 updating its reservation system with technology so it can handle seat assignments.

But it also will spend the next year ramping up service at Dulles, where it began offering 12 daily flights to four cities, and promoting service to its headquarters airport at Dallas Love Field. It can add flights there now that Congress overturned the so-called Wright amendment that allowed flights only from a handful of neighboring states.

Southwest does not plan on launching service at new airports in 2007, after three years in a row of additions. But it will likely add flights to its network.

That doesn't mean resolving the seating isn't a priority.

Terry Trippler, an airline expert at myvacationpassport.com, a Minneapolis-based travel club, said it should be the priority.

"They do have to figure this out," he said. "You can stand alone as the only airline doing this when you stand alone as the only low-fare carrier. And they were for so long. But there is so much competition in the low-cost area that Southwest is going to be forced by the JetBlues, AirTrans and Frontiers to offer assigned seating. They'll give you a seat and other things like TV."

Indeed, Tony Comer, of Laytonsville in Montgomery County, who was flying to Houston on AirTran Airways yesterday, said he prefers JetBlue Airways because it offers DirecTV.

"And I like having the aisle seat," he said. "I'd pay a little more to know I'm getting it. It's not so much price with me as value."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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