Southwest Airlines Co. is suing a company that helps travelers get the best seats on its planes by handling their online check-in, and the airline is asking other Web sites to stop offering the same service.
Other U.S. airlines issue assigned seats, but Southwest boards passengers in three groups. Customers who check in first - in person or over the Internet - get the best seats.
Starting in September, the airline noticed that Web sites were offering to check in passengers for free or a fee of a few dollars.
"We've seen them pop up on almost a daily basis," said Brandy King, a spokeswoman for the airline. "The popularity of the concept is growing."
While some customers discovered these services, those who didn't began to complain that it was getting harder to get in the "A" boarding group, King said.
King said Southwest has contacted more than a dozen Web sites to ask them to stop issuing boarding passes.
Last month, Southwest sued BoardFirst LLC in federal district court in Dallas, accusing the company of computer fraud, unfair competition, trademark infringement and "unjust enrichment." BoardFirst has rejected Southwest's demands to stop.
King said Southwest went to court because it feared losing control of its seating inventory. She also said Southwest wanted to prevent its customers from turning over credit-card and other personal information to a firm that is not connected to the airline.
Kate Bell, a former interior designer who runs BoardFirst from her kitchen in Phoenix, said she performs a valuable and legal service for travelers who can't get to a computer or don't have time to check in online.
"The whole idea that we're messing with their inventory is absurd," Bell said. "We do about 100 check-ins a day."
Bell has hired a lawyer in Dallas and vows to fight the airline.
Southwest lets customers check in up to 24 hours before a flight. Some still show up at the airport hours ahead of time to check in, but many now use the Internet to print a boarding pass from a home or office computer.
The nimblest move quickly - group "A" passes often disappear soon after the 24-hour countdown to takeoff begins. BoardFirst charges $5 for getting an "A" boarding pass for a customer; otherwise, there is no charge.
Southwest allows someone other than the traveler to get the boarding pass - a spouse or office assistant, for example - but not a third party that does it for commercial purposes. Bell claimed the airline rewrote the rules to put her out of business.
Dallas-based Southwest has agonized in public over whether to junk its boarding method, which the airline calls "open seating" but rivals and some passengers deride as a cattle call.
Last month, Chief Executive Gary Kelly said the airline is overhauling its computerized reservation system to give it the ability to assign seats. He said no decision had been made to adopt assigned seating and that any change wouldn't happen before 2008.
Southwest officials worry that assigned seating could slow boarding, making it harder for the airline to meet its strict schedule for unloading and loading planes and taking off for the next destination.
Kelly said some passengers prefer the current boarding by groups, while others want assigned seats.
BoardFirst's Bell said she prefers assigned seating, even though eliminating the current system would affect her.
"My business would be over," she said.
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