- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

DALLAS (AP) — Southwest Airlines Co. is modifying its boarding policy, but it will stick with its unusual system of letting passengers find their own seat instead of getting an assigned one.

Southwest said yesterday that its 36-year policy of “open seating” is faster and customers like it. But the airline will tinker with the current system in early November by assigning a number to each passenger within its three boarding groups. Although this wouldn’t assign them a seat, it would dictate the order in which they could board the plane to find their own.

In another change, Southwest will stop automatically boarding families with young children first. Unless they have a coveted “A” boarding pass, families will board after the first 60 passengers beginning Oct. 2.

Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said it wasn’t fair for families who arrived just before takeoff to jump ahead of other passengers who were already in line.

Southwest has conducted a debate over its boarding policy for several years. Mr. Kelly said the airline was leaning toward switching to assigned seating until it surveyed customers and found that only about 30 percent favored a change.

And even for those travelers who wanted assigned seats, it didn’t dictate which airline they favored, he said.

Southwest also considered a hybrid approach — letting customers pay extra for an assigned seat — but thought it would be too complicated, Mr. Kelly said.

It settled for a smaller change. Passes will have a number in addition to the familiar A, B or C. A traveler with B-16 would board ahead of someone with B-35 even if passenger B-16 rushed over from the food court just as boarding began.

Currently, the late-arriving traveler would have to go to the end of the “B” line.

To avoid the back of the line, customers wait at the gate an average of 45 to 60 minutes, said Executive Vice President Bob Jordan.

Southwest offers 3,300 flights a day and carries more domestic passengers than any other airline — 96.3 million last year — so any change in seating procedures would be a logistical challenge. The issue has long divided passengers.

In the past few years, Southwest spent millions on technology that would have made it easier to end open seating. Then it spent “a couple million” testing assigned seating, Mr. Jordan said.

For that reason, yesterday’s decision to stick with the status quo came as a surprise.

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