Flying by the numbers

The Baltimore Sun

The first thing you notice is that there's no noise. There's no horde camped out on the floor or bunched up in the A line, either.

Instead, there's a surprising hush in the terminal. Waiting passengers are seated around the gate areas, tapping on laptops, snacking, snoozing. Minutes before boarding, they calmly find their numbered place in line beside a stainless steel post.

Quiet. Order. Civility.

Travelers almost seemed to forget they were flying Southwest Airlines.

"It was like the roundup at the OK Corral with the old system," said Ron Jones, napping in his seat before his Baltimore-to-Chicago flight. "Now you just have to look for the number on the pole."

It was Day 1 for Southwest's reorganized boarding system. After more than a year of testing, Southwest rolled it out yesterday nationwide, including at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

On check-in, passengers now get a place number along with their boarding group (A,B,C). Southwest will still maintain its rebel status as the only major U.S. carrier not to assign seats.

By most accounts, ditching the cattle call should be a sound business decision for Southwest. The Dallas-based airline seemed able to keep to its 20-minute turnaround for planes -- and, if anything, shaved seconds off the boarding process.

The new boarding system is part of the dominant discount airline's strategy to woo more business travelers without losing its leisure passenger base. But one piece of that effort -- its new premium business fare that comes with priority boarding and a free cocktail -- didn't take off quite as smoothly on its inaugural day.

Jeff Harris, of Gaithersburg, had planned to pay the $10 to $30 over full fare to be first to board a midday plane to Las Vegas yesterday.

But the ticket agent couldn't access the new Business Select fare, Harris said. Instead, the agent gave him a blue pre-boarding pass for no extra fee.

"She just couldn't figure it out," said Harris, one of the first on the full plane.

Announced just the day before, Business Select, which is slated to take up about 15 of the 137 seats on the airline's Boeing 737s, left noticeable gaps at the front of the A group lines. No passengers stood by the posts marked 1-5, 6-10 and 11-15. They mostly had numbers 16 and higher.

"We expect it to be a slow start," Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said of the premium fare. "Customers need a chance to book it."

Southwest also announced Wednesday that it will automatically check in frequent fliers for the best boarding pass available, provided the ticket is purchased at least 36 hours in advance. Qualifying customers must fly at least 32 one-way flights with the airline per year.

Southwest's push to add business travelers comes as airline analysts predict reductions in corporate travel demand. That means fierce competition as it scrambles to build market share.

The changes grew out of Southwest's goal to raise an additional $1 billion in revenue by 2009. At the same time, BWI's dominant carrier must rein in growth as it faces rising fuel prices, Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said.

While most new Southwest features target business travelers, the company doesn't want to overlook families.

Customers such as Belinda Sims and her daughter, Alyssa Stanford, 6, who sat comfortably at a new kid-sized table with matching squat stools in the waiting area yesterday. Alyssa read and watched a movie on an MP3 player. Her mother relaxed with a magazine, waiting to board their flight to Detroit.

"This is a good approach, to reduce all that standing in line, which was tedious," said Sims, a Bowie resident. "Already I feel better about the day."

The family areas are part of a $40 million gate makeover that Southwest expects to complete at its 64 airports by mid-2008. That cost includes the installation of numbered posts and twin computer monitors at each gate, for the new boarding system, Eichinger said.

One mounted monitor signals for travelers A31-60 to line up; the other has passengers B1-30 at the ready.

At least one BWI gate experienced a slight glitch about 6 a.m. yesterday. The wires for the twin monitors were crossed, reversing their displays. Southwest officials said technicians quickly fixed the problem.

Passengers were briefly backed up in some jetways on crowded flights. They didn't seem to feel compelled to fight their way to a seat. But most planes still left on time.

Jones, a facility technician for the Baltimore Hard Rock Cafe who lives in Chicago, said the boarding changes seemed an unnecessary expense. Still, he conceded, having an assigned boarding number made it easier for him to relax yesterday.

"They spent extra money really for no reason, but I'll give it a try," Jones said.

But most travelers seemed to appreciate the convenience. Though they were in different boarding groups, St. Mary's County residents Catharine and John Kennedy got to read the paper and have coffee together before their Orlando, Fla., flight. Under the old system, the couple would have stood apart in line for an hour. John Kennedy, headed to a meeting for work, had booked his ticket separately from his wife.

"She's just going to have to try to save a seat for me," he said. "Southwest is by far the best in getting people there on time."

Kingsville resident Anne Mulqueen, a lay counselor with the Franciscan order, enjoyed the tranquillity.

"This is very calming and very just," said Mulqueen, who was heading to a Detroit conference. "You've maintained the open seating, but you don't have people pushing all over."

Southwest Airlines' new system

Boarding passes: Still grouped into A, B or C, based on the time of check-in, but they are now numbered, such as A-1, A-2, etc. Passengers board according to their number. There are still no assigned seats.

Check-in: Available online beginning 24 hours before departure.

Pre-boarding: Still available for passengers with disabilities and unaccompanied children ages 5 to 11.

Priority boarding: Business Select ticket holders pay a premium for the first spots in line. Rapid Rewards members who fly at least 32 one-way flights a year will be issued the highest priority boarding pass available.

Boarding: Passengers can stroll through the airport and linger in shops and restaurants without losing their spots in the boarding order. When their numbers are called, passengers take their places at a column with numbers for their group. TV monitors near the jetway also display which group is boarding.

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