Southwest Curious How Public Views Assigned Seats

As Southwest Airlines experiments with assigning seats on its airplanes during the coming weeks, industry experts and the airline said there is one thing above all else at stake: passengers.

They weren't talking about the small group of loyal adherents to the first-come, first-served method that Southwest has employed for 35 years. Instead, it's the rest of the flying public that either tolerates the policy with gritted teeth or avoids the airline altogether.

Southwest said the No. 1 request it gets is for an assigned seat. And while the airline has long fought the urge to change a seating policy that is credited with expanding its profits, the airline last week embarked on a trial that could make it look more like its competitors.

All other large low-cost carriers and traditional airlines offer assigned seats. They also provide amenities that Southwest doesn't.

AirTran Airways offers XM Satellite Radio and business-class seating. JetBlue offers DirecTV. Even large, financially troubled airlines that have scaled back on food and other items generally offer some extras - or at least a flight to the main metro-area airport. Southwest generally focuses on the less congested but more far-flung landing spots.

So, when other airlines match Southwest's discount fares, the company has to rely on what passengers say is its quirky charm and good customer service. While it doesn't want to lose its passengers who like the airline the way it is, Southwest, the nation's sixth-largest carrier, doesn't want to forgo new customers.

"We think that there are a fair number of people who won't even try the product because of the lack of assigned seating," said Tom Nealon, senior vice president of technology for Southwest. "It certainly warrants us understanding this better."

The airline assigned seats on 20 flights from San Diego last week, the first in a program expected to last until Labor Day. The carrier is testing how long it takes to board passengers. If it slows the time that it takes to "turn" a plane - that is, unload passengers at the gate, reload, prepare the plane and take off - assigned seats will not be considered.

The airline relies on its quick turnaround time to keep planes in the air making money. On the first two flights of the experiment, the turn time was one minute and three minutes ahead, respectively, of the average 25-minute turn time, Nealon said. He declined to divulge more about the test scores, although a spokeswoman said the first week went well.

If the overall experiment is successful, the airline will study how to assign seats in a "Southwest way," said Nealon. That means developing a unique system that somehow maintains the culture of the airline.

Meantime, the airline will continue to conduct other research to fully determine the views of customers and non-customers.

If the airline changes its seating system, it will not be before 2008, when its technology is enabled. Customers would most likely be able to pick a seat online when they book a flight.

As big a change as it would be for Southwest, some aviation experts said the airline has no choice but to explore the option.

"This is no big, earth-shattering movement," said Terry Trippler, a consultant for Vacation Passport, a Minneapolis-based travel club. "Others have been doing it for how many years? ... It's an idea whose time has come."

Trippler said Southwest no longer controls fares as it used to. There are many more low-cost carriers and traditional airlines that have been forced to match the prices on competitive routes. That, in turn, pressures Southwest to offer something that the others provide, he said.

Trippler said he believes that the airline will find a way to assign seats, board efficiently and keep costs down. But boarding is not an exact science, and other airlines continue to tinker with their procedures.

Northwest Airlines recently began "open boarding," in which passengers board randomly. The airline reported that it has cut congestion in the aisles and about seven minutes from its boarding time. As a nod to frequent fliers, the airline also said July 3 that it would offer a separate line in which they can board.

JetBlue Airways also adopted open boarding in April after studies on more than 100 flights showed the carrier would shave time off its usual 18-minute boarding time. It saved about 60 seconds. At some airports, it loads passengers through the front and rear doors of its planes, further decreasing boarding time to 13.5 minutes. The total turn time averages 35 minutes.

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."

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