Are the days of the cattle call seating over?
At 35, Southwest's strategy gets more complicated
Posted 7/11/2006 12:20 AM ET
By Dan Reed, USA TODAY
DALLAS — When Donald Cloo of Phoenix boarded Southwest Airlines Flight 2444 Monday in San Diego, he did something no passenger had ever done in the 35-year history of the discount carrier. He sat in an assigned seat.
With that, Dallas-based Southwest began an eight-week test with selected flights out of San Diego to see whether assigning seats will speed up the boarding process and allow the carrier to dispatch its planes quicker.
Southwest says it will make no change in its unique open-seating policy before 2008 — and maybe not even then. But Cloo's assignment to seat 19C on the 137-seat Boeing 737 is indicative of something much larger and much riskier than the way in which customers get on a Southwest jet.
On several fronts, the legendary Texas discounter that has rewritten the rules of air travel in the USA is adjusting to its rapid growth. It's already overcome its former aversion to taking on competitors at their own crowded hub airports. And the day may come when the spartan discounter starts to match some of the in-flight amenities available at other airlines — movies, for example.
Its growth is pushing the carrier uncomfortably close to what executives, flight crews and ordinary workers here always have disdained: a typical big airline. The risk: whether Southwest can balance its rapid growth with the folksy, offbeat approach to air travel that has inspired legions of loyal customers.
CEO Gary Kelly, in an interview, acknowledged that, to an old-timer returning from 20 years on a desert island, Southwest's "maverick aspect probably would be less visible." But, he says, that's mostly because the big traditional airlines have become more like Southwest. And despite the changes, Kelly says, "The soul of our company is unchanged."
Since it began flying in 1971, the lack of assigned seating has been the No. 1 customer complaint. Though some die-hards swear by it, most travelers accept it as a trade-off for Southwest's low fares. Now, though, the industry iconoclast is the USA's No. 6 airline. And it's trying to sell tickets in new markets to customers who didn't grow up with its quirky ways.
Other fronts where Southwest seems to be morphing into a more conventional carrier:
• Fares. Southwest, which long promoted itself as "the low-fare carrier," has shown a new willingness to raise them. It's done so nine times since the middle of last year, including a $10 increase on some longer flights over the July Fourth weekend. In the first quarter, its average one-way fare inched above $100 for the first time.
• Competition. For years, Southwest sought to avoid head-to-head competition with big, traditional airlines. But over the past 26 months, it's launched service at rivals' hubs, first at Philadelphia, a US Airways stronghold, then this year at Denver, a hub to both United and Frontier.
• Amenities. Notoriously bare-bones Southwest is considering adding some type of in-flight entertainment technology, Kelly has said.
• Code sharing. It is moving quickly to develop its fledging partnership with ATA Airlines, which it helped rescue from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Now, Southwest frequent fliers can claim free trips to places the airline itself doesn't go, such as Hawaii and New York City.
• Fleet diversification. Southwest's efficiency is built largely on its all-Boeing 737 fleet. Kelly says that he's "intrigued" by the possibility of flying 100-seat jets in markets with too little demand to support 737 service. He says nothing is currently in the works.
• International flying. In 2008, when the new computer system that permits seat assignments is working, Southwest also will be able to sell tickets in foreign currencies. Kelly says nothing's imminent, but "it's a matter of when, not if" Southwest will launch service to Mexico, Canada, or even the Caribbean.
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