Will Southwest Airlines ever switch from its free-for-all boarding system to assigned seats?
This is a question I asked Southwest spokeswoman Michelle Agnew a couple of weeks ago, while reporting a story for Conde Nast Traveler that compared how various airlines board their flights.
Southwest loyalists likely will be pleased with her answer. "We do not currently have any plans for assigning seats," Agnew told me. "Our customers continue to tell us that they want Southwest to keep the open seating policy."
This question has come up a bit recently, as Southwest soon will migrate to a new computer system, which, technologically speaking, could make it easier for the airline to assign seats. I asked Agnew about this, and she shared with me a recent quote Southwest CEO Gary Kelly gave to another journalist.
"We don’t have a single ounce of effort currently devoted to even considering assigned seating,” Kelly had said, adding, "what is possible isn’t necessarily probable.”
I suspect it's unlikely Southwest will alter its procedures. While not everyone likes Southwest's open seating - it can be stressful to board and find an empty seat - the system is efficient, allowing the airline to board faster than many competitors. When people see an empty seat they like, they take it. There's a lot less waiting in the aisles.
"You tend to do a little better when there is no seat assigned compared to when there is seat assigned," Hani Mahmassani, director of Northwestern University's Transportation Center, told me for the Conde Nast story. Southwest, he says, is able to "minimize blockage" in the aisles.
Southwest tested assigned seating several years ago, but it didn't go that well, so it stuck with its long-time approach. "Our customers tell us time and time again that they want to be able to choose their seat when onboard the aircraft," Agnew said.
What about Southwest's unusual system for deciding which passengers board first? The airline, as you likely know, allows passengers who check-in early to board first. To get a decent seat on Southwest, you often need to check in exactly 24 hours before your flight.
It sounds like that is sticking around, too.
"Our must frequent customers understand the process and like it because it’s easy to get into a routine with our procedures," Agnew said. "It almost becomes a game or challenge of sorts for those savvy travelers to make sure they check-in right at 24 hours."
What do you think? Should Southwest stick with its boarding procedure? Or should it switch things up?
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