Southwest Airlines Co. is asking frequent fliers if they prefer assigned seats as it studies whether to change its first-come, first-serve boarding process.
Southwest, the only major U.S. airline that doesn't assign seats, is conducting the five-question e-mail survey while it experiments with matching passengers to seats instead of boarding them in three groups.
The carrier began the boarding test July 10 to determine whether seat assignments would lengthen or shorten its jets' ground time. The experiment involves about 200 flights from San Diego, and travelers don't know in advance that seats will be assigned.
"Your opinion is an important piece to this puzzle," the e-mail survey says, asking for a response by Aug. 11. "This poll is one of several very important steps in Southwest's ongoing look at assigned seating. Assigned seats have always been a top request from customers who call or write to us."
Every member of Southwest's frequent-flier program will get the survey, which began this week, spokesman Ed Stewart said Friday. The program covers "millions" of travelers, he said, without being more specific.
The survey asks how much fliers like the idea of assigned seats, whether that step would make them travel more on Southwest, and whether they would prefer seat assignments when tickets are purchased or 24 hours before departure, when check-in starts now.
A change in seating policy wouldn't come before 2008, though Southwest has said it may decide this year whether to take the step.
Southwest now boards flights in three groups, typically with about 40 people in each, and allows passengers to pick any open seat. The traveler at the front of the initial group gets the first choice.
Southwest adopted the practice when it began flying in 1971 as a way to speed boarding times and allow its planes to fly more and sit less.
CEO Gary Kelly said in June that the airline believes 75 percent of passengers prefer the current approach, also known as open seating. That's based on anecdotal comments from customers, Stewart said Friday.
Southwest also is collecting customer feedback through Web logs and letters in addition to the e-mail survey, Stewart said, as well as reviewing data from the San Diego boarding experiment.
"It's way too early to be definitive on what we're learning," Stewart said.
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The airline wants to know if assigning seats will slow down Southwest's ability to unload incoming planes and board passengers for the next flight.
Starting in September, the airline noticed that Web sites were offering to check in passengers for free or a fee of a few dollars.