Southwest Airlines Co. will test assigning seats to travelers, another indication that the maverick carrier may get in line with other U.S. airlines by junking its first-come, first-served seating system.
Passengers will be assigned seats on about 200 flights from San Diego for several weeks beginning July 10, an airline spokesman said Tuesday.
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. It takes Southwest about 25 minutes on average to turn a plane around. Any delay can add to the airline's costs.
Southwest is already updating its computerized reservation system to handle assigned seating and international flights. Chief Executive Gary Kelly has said neither change is definite, and that Southwest won't eliminate what it calls "open seating" until late next year, at the earliest.
"We want to make sure that we have studied all the possibilities and aspects of assigned seating before we make any change to what has been a very successful formula for the past 35 years," Kelly said in a statement Tuesday.
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.
During the San Diego test, passengers will be called ahead of time and told to check in at the gate for an assigned seat, said Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart.
"We're going to take a look at this and see if it improves overall operational efficiency and see whether it customers are still smiling," Stewart said. "We really want to know how it affects turn times."
San Diego was selected - and only for outbound flights - because of its mix of short, medium and long flights, Stewart said. The airport is Dallas-based Southwest's 10th busiest, with 92 daily departures from 10 gates to 15 cities.
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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.
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