Southwest Airlines Co. began assigning seats to some passengers Monday, a first for the maverick carrier that for 35 years has let travelers choose where to sit on a first-come, first-served basis.
It is only a test - for now. The Dallas-based airline wants to know if assigning seats will slow down its ability to unload incoming planes and board passengers for the next flight. It takes the carrier 25 minutes on average to turn a plane around, and any delay can add to the airline's costs.
Southwest carries more domestic passengers than any other airline and it is the only airline in the United States to have what it calls "open seating," said spokeswoman Marilee McInnis.
"Open seating has been a big part of our success in allowing quick turn times," said McInnis, noting that a new reservation system is being installed to handle assigned seating and international flights. "But times are changing and we have technologies we didn't have before."
McInnis said customers contact Southwest in equal numbers to either decry or praise open seating.
Chief Executive Gary Kelly has said the change is not definite, and if Southwest does eliminate open seating it won't be until late next year, at the earliest.
About 200 flights departing San Diego over the next few weeks will have assigned seating. The city was chosen for the test because of its mix of leisure and business travelers, as well its mixture of long-, medium-, and short-haul flights.
Some passengers checking in for Southwest's flight 2444 to Phoenix on Monday seemed aggravated by the test, partly because they had to wait in line a second time after clearing security in order to get a seat assignment.
"It's ridiculous," said Mike Elles, a nurse from Scottsdale, Arizona. "It was so easy before, you got your card and you just walked on board. Now you can't pick your seat."
"These guys are smart, why change something that's not broke?" asked Phoenix resident John Michael. "The only people that do this are dinosaur airlines."
But John Jul of San Diego said he thought assigned seating might be an improvement because he could ask to sit on an exit aisle, and garner a couple inches extra legroom.
Travelers on Southwest flights board in three groups, with priority given to those who get boarding passes first - up to 24 hours before the flight.
Priority boarding passes are so valued that some customers pay Web sites to check in electronically and secure a Group A pass. In May, Southwest filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Dallas against one of the Web sites and has asked more than a dozen others to stop handling electronic check-ins for customers.
McInnis said that if assigned seating is adopted on a bigger scale, customers would be able to choose their seats online.
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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.
Southwest is conducting the five-question e-mail survey while it experiments with matching passengers to seats instead of boarding them in three groups.
Starting in September, the airline noticed that Web sites were offering to check in passengers for free or a fee of a few dollars.