Southwest to Change Boarding Process

Southwest plans to eliminate the long lines for its open-call boarding.

Sept. 19, 2007— -- After months of experimenting with different seating strategies, discount giant Southwest Airlines today said that it will stick to its unique open seating policy — a process often derided as the "cattle call" — but tweak its boarding process. In making the announcement at its Dallas headquarters, Southwest officials rejected the possibility of any time soon moving into the industry mainstream by assigning seats.

"This new boarding process is the future of Southwest Airlines," an employee communication distributed Wednesday morning says.

Southwest, which boards more passengers each month than any other U.S. airline, is the only big domestic carrier that lets passengers pick their own seat, a practice dating back to its founding 34 years ago.

It's loved by some and hated by others. Perhaps the most annoying aspect of it, however, is that half of a flight's passengers stand in line 30 minutes before boarding time to get on the plane first, the airline says.

Southwest's seating -- and boarding tests in San Diego and San Antonio convinced Southwest that it needs to reduce the need to wait in line before boarding.

So, starting in early November, Southwest is going to automatically give passengers an assigned number within in its current boarding groups: A, B and C.

They'll get the number and the group when they check in, which can be done within 24 hours of a flight. Another change: A and B groups will also be expanded to 60 passengers. Southwest's Boeing 737s — its only aircraft type — carry 137 passengers.

The new process will eliminate the need for passengers to wait in line to secure a good boarding position. That will free up passengers' time, Southwest says, so they can either sit down, shop in an airport store or order a beer.

To make it easy for passengers to see when it's their turn, Southwest is going to install displays of current boarding numbers in groups of five, so the sign, for instance, would tell passengers that those in B group with numbers 11 to 15 are eligible to get on the plane and choose a seat.

The policy change may do little to sway travelers opposed to Southwest's current system. Business traveler Christer Wernerdal of Tampa, Fla., a Southwest hub, says open seating is one of the reasons he avoids the airline: "Why can't they have normal seating like the other successful low (cost) carriers?"

But William Krueger of Louisville, Tenn., says he likes Southwest's new boarding process because it continues to favor people like him who check in over the Internet. If he checks in online even just a few hours before scheduled departure, he says he often gets an A or B pass, and, in turn, an aisle seat. He believes the process lets him nab an aisle seat more regularly than on Delta and American, which use traditional assigned seating policies.

"Hurray for Southwest. Again, they put the customer first," Krueger says.

The change will be implemented in November after Southwest has time to train employees and to make some changes at airport gates.

Contributing: Roger Yu.