Southwest May Adopt Assigned Seats on Flights

Since its founding 35 years ago, Southwest Airlines has held to a policy of no assigned seats to keep down costs by not having to print boarding passes.
Since its founding 35 years ago, Southwest Airlines has held to a policy of no assigned seats to keep down costs by not having to print boarding passes. (By Stefan Zaklin -- Getty Images)
By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Southwest Airlines acknowledged yesterday that it was considering abandoning its free-for-all boarding process and implementing assigned seating.

The nation's largest low-cost carrier said it spent $5 million to enhance its reservation system as part of an internal test to see if it could easily implement assigned seating. The company also is examining how assigned seating would affect its operations.

Southwest officials stressed that the airline has not decided to adopt assigned seating; it is merely aggressively exploring the possibility after complaints from passengers about the current system.

"In order to look at the possibility as to will this work for Southwest Airlines, we needed to bump up the reservation system a little bit," Southwest spokeswoman Beth Hardin said. "We're very much in the investigative mode as of now."

Southwest is the nation's only major carrier that does not offer assigned seating. Since the airline's founding 35 years ago, Southwest executives have been against designated seats, saying it would be costly to print boarding passes. The airline had also said the standard system would slow its ability to get flights out on time.

Despite the airline's low fares, some passengers, particularly business travelers, have never embraced the open-seating policy. To get a preferred seat, passengers have to arrive at the airport hours before their flight to be among the first group to board. Or they have to remember to check in for their flight via the Internet at least 24 hours before to earn a spot in that early-boarding group.

With a herd of passengers stampeding onto the aircraft to find seats, some travelers have likened the airline's boarding process to a cattle call.

On regular trips to Cleveland from Baltimore, Chevy Chase construction consultant Robert Salmon said he has often bought more expensive tickets on other carriers, such as Continental Airlines to avoid the risk of getting stuck in a middle seat on Southwest. Salmon says he has paid as much as $15 more each way, even when Southwest had lower price tickets available.

"I'm willing to pay for a reserved seat," Salmon said. "I don't consider [Southwest] because they don't reserve seats."

Southwest, the nation's sixth-largest airline, is the No. 1 carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. In the fall, the airline will begin flying out of Washington Dulles International Airport.

As other airlines have cut costs and ticket prices and as budget carriers such as AirTran Airways and JetBlue Airways have expanded, industry experts said Southwest has lost some of its competitive edge.

"Southwest has to do this to stay competitive," said airline consultant Mike Boyd of the Denver-based Boyd Group. "They're going to be pushed out of markets if they don't."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company