Southwest Airlines trims the lines waiting for seats

The wait in line to board a Southwest Airlines Co. flight just got a little shorter in San Antonio.

The Dallas-based carrier started testing a new system here Tuesday that should cut down on passengers' long waits to get their choice of unassigned seats on Southwest flights.

The seats still are unassigned, but passengers now are given assigned numbers in groups of A, B or C and get in line only after their letter and number is shown on an airport monitor or when it's called by Southwest employees.

"It eliminates jockeying for the first spot in the line, and it allows people to go to the concessions or use the restroom," said Susie Boersma, manager of airport improvement for Southwest Airlines.

Before, passengers would line up early within the letter groups to get the seat they wanted on the plane.

This created an atmosphere where people would hold their spot in line with luggage or they would wait in line for at least an hour, said Brandy King, a Southwest spokeswoman.

Southwest adopted the letter system about six years ago, King said, and plans to keep it because passengers are familiar with it.

However, the company stressed there still is open seating on the planes, and a person's assigned boarding number is determined on a first-come, first-served basis when passengers check in online or at the airport.

Some passengers at San Antonio International Airport who were waiting to board a 2:30 p.m. flight to Dallas from San Antonio on Tuesday were curious to see how the new system worked.

Ellie Rucker, who was heading to Albuquerque, was sitting with a B10 boarding pass when the A group was in line. She said the new system might be a little bit easier on her legs.

"At least I don't have to stand for 40 minutes," She said. "Now, I can just sit here for as long as I want."

Another passenger, Bryan Bulloch, who was standing in line with his family in the A group, said the new procedure seemed a bit more organized.

"At least now you know where you are going to be," he said.

King said all of the airline's 49 flights in San Antonio will use this new boarding system through the end of August. Southwest will analyze the results of the San Antonio test and make a decision on the best boarding and seating arrangements by the end of year, she said.

Along with the new boarding system, Southwest also is initiating family- and business-oriented perks in its seating areas here.

Four of its five gates in San Antonio now have larger, bright blue, cushioned chairs for business travelers, along with power stations with several outlets for charging cell phones and laptops. There also are kid-sized tables and chairs with games and a flat-screen television showing family movies.

Southwest tested assigned seating last year in San Diego, Calif., King said, but many passengers said they liked open seating. She said the airline has been looking at new boarding procedures to help increase customer satisfaction.

But at least one aviation analyst thinks Southwest needs to start assigning seats to help with customer satisfaction.

"People don't like open seating. Southwest is dreaming when they say that," said Mike Boyd, analyst with the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo. "The reality is, if they are going to compete going forward, they need assigned seating. That's their biggest problem. There's enough anxiety going through security without then wondering what type of seat you will get when you board."