Take a number, Southwest fliers

The Baltimore Sun

Kiss the cattle call goodbye, but get ready to take a number the next time you fly Southwest Airlines.

The Dallas-based airline said yesterday that it will change the open-seating system that has been central to its maverick identity through 36 years in business by assigning numbers to position passengers in boarding lanes.

Starting in early November, fliers will no longer have to show up at the gate early and get in line to jostle, elbow and vie for the best seat. Instead, assigned letters and numbers on new boarding passes will mark positions in line, from which passengers will be able to board in small groups and choose their favorite seats. The airline will not assign seats, as nearly all of its competitors do.

It's a system designed to make the most people happy without compromising Southwest's famed efficiency or forcing major change on its cult of open-seating die-hards.

"No more cattle call," Gary C. Kelly, Southwest's chief executive officer, said yesterday. "But it's still open seating. It's still first-come, first-served. But now, we will alleviate the need to save your place in line, so customers will no longer need to queue up early. You'll have your assigned place in line.

"It was very clear when we did customer research and surveyed our customers," Kelly added. "They said, 'We like open seating. We like picking our seats. We just don't like waiting in line.' This will vastly improve on what is already a good process."

The long-awaited announcement comes after the carrier, which provides more than half the flights at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, spent more than a year trying to decide whether to change or do away with open seating.

Southwest was hesitant to alter a system that, along with low fares and friendly, quirky employees, has been credited for a run of long-term profitability unique in the airline industry. Southwest aims to get planes in and out of airports as rapidly as possible and have them flying longer than its assigned-seating competitors. It had long maintained that assigned seating would hold up boarding.

Many Southwest faithful enjoy the airline's democracy - not dividing people into a privileged class of fliers and the more common traveling herd. But facing growing pressure to offer more services to business travelers, who often pay the highest fares but get stuck in middle seats, Southwest said it was necessary to study assigned seating - the No. 1 request it received from passengers in recent years.

"I'm not attracted in any way to open seating," said Terry Trippler, an industry watcher for the travel club myvacationpassport.com. "There are a lot of business people who fly who want to know they have an assigned seat. With that said, anything that makes the departure a more orderly place, then I'm all for it."

Southwest now puts passengers into A, B and C priority boarding groups. Flyers who want to be seated first often check in online 24 hours before departure - the earliest check-in allowed - to get a coveted A boarding pass. Other fliers simply show up at the airport and gate as early as possible to get into the B Group and save a position in line.

It's that first-in-line mentality that had dozens of fliers lining up at the gate more than an hour ahead of departure yesterday for some BWI flights.

Coast Guard Lt. Comdr. Reginald Baird squatted in second place in the A line for more than an hour before his 4:15 p.m. flight to Manchester, N.H.

Baird is a typical Southwest customer. He believes in structure, planning and promptness, which is why he's usually near the front of the A line. He prints out his boarding pass on his computer at the Coast Guard base in Baltimore, and he gets to the airport early. "I do try to be on time and ahead of the rush," he said. "I like being organized; I do that in everything."

In November, that need to jockey for a good position at the gate will be eliminated.

The check-in process will remain the same. Flyers will still be able to get a boarding pass 24 hours in advance. But they will be issued a number and a letter. At the gate, Southwest agents will call out groups of 30, and divide them according to number into six columns of five people each.

Flyers in group A1 to A30, for example, will divide into columns A1 to A5, A6 to A10 and so on. Once it boards by column, that group will be followed by group A31 to A60. Then groups B and C will follow in the same manner.

Kelly said training for flight attendants and other personnel to adapt to the changes is well under way. All the computer technology needed to implement the new system will be ready nationwide by November, he said. Construction work to erect columns and signs at gates to help guide passengers into groups properly will be mostly completed, he added. Dave Mills, a customer service supervisor for Southwest, said new signs have been ordered for BWI, and employees are scheduled for training next month.

In several experiments over the past year, Southwest tested various boarding methods to see if it could improve its formula. For example, Southwest assigned seats to all 116 passengers on a flight from San Diego to Phoenix last summer.

But assigned seating added 1 to 4 minutes to the planes' turn times, Southwest found.

"I don't know what the psychology is behind that, but it seems that people are less urgent about finding their seat when they know where they're going to sit," Kelly said.

After a year of research, tests and feedback from longtime fliers - some of whom loudly voiced their objection to assigned seating on the company's blog - Southwest tested the assigned number system in San Antonio last month. The test flights were a huge success, Kelly said. He said the new system "shaves seconds" off turn times.

"If Southwest can pull it off, I don't see how they'll lose," said Dean E. Headley, associate professor at Wichita State University's business school and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating report. "It could attract people who were avoiding the airline because of their seating system."

People such as Baird, an experienced flier who has learned to operate within the old system, said he thinks the new five-at-a-time boarding might be an improvement. Saying he had sometimes seen people get angry over places in line, he said, "That would be nice, if it's going to be more organized."

Denise Owens was less sure. Printing out a boarding pass for a trip home to Cleveland, while her 2-year-old, Ava, scooted a stroller back and forth, she said, "It's a bus in the sky. It's kind of mayhem anyway. I don't know if the numbers will make it less like a cattle herd." She said she was even less thrilled by a new Southwest policy announced this week, that parents with small children will no longer get to board first. "That stinks," she said. "You try to get a 2-year-old up there."

Jennifer Comeau, an executive coach from Kennebunkport, Me., found herself in the last-to-board C line because she held a training session Tuesday afternoon and couldn't print her pass early. To compensate, she had gotten to the gate to line up more than an hour before her flight to Manchester.

Something of an anthropologist of air travel, Comeau has recorded a podcast for her clients on "Creating Community with Strangers in the Sky," advice on how to "endure the hardship of flying by re-framing travel as an opportunity to learn from people." Comeau said Southwest's new boarding policy sounded good, but she wasn't sure whether that would help or hinder creating community in the sky. "There's an element of chance no matter how it works," she said.

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com bill.salganik@baltsun.com

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