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.
Carrier is taking a hard look at doing things it's never done before
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.