Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Control or Chaos

We generally fly Southwest Airlines. We like them for a bunch of reasons. If you can't make your flight, they issue you a full credit applicable toward any future flight. All you have to do is use the credit within one year of the original purchase date. If you miss that deadline, they'll re-issue the credit for only $50. They don't charge you extra to check your luggage or sit by a window. And often the cabin crew will sing to you. There's a very funny SWA rap on YouTube: check it out here.

Another way that SWA is different is that they don't have assigned seating. Instead, they put you in a boarding group, A, B, or C which is determined mostly by when you pick up your boarding pass. They board in that order, and you are free to take any open seat. There are some problems with the system. Sometimes they run out of overhead bin space, and you have to either cram your carry-on under the seat in front of you or you have to check it. Also, since everybody wants to sit close to the front of the plane, a logjam occurs as people take the first available seat. But the atmosphere is generally friendly and they have one of the best on-time records in the industry.

I didn't realize how chaotic this system is until we boarded the first leg of our American Airlines flight this morning. They assign seating and after taking care of the first class passengers they board from the back to the front of the plane. This made for a much more controlled situation. Everything quite orderly, thank you.

I've often thought that SWA could operate more efficiently if they boarded the C group first and made them stow their luggage and sit in the back third of the plane. It would even offer them a perk: on partially full flights singles would have a much better chance of nabbing a three-row and stretching out. Our experience this morning made me realize just how right I am.

I recently talked to an SWA customer service rep about my idea and she just laughed. I guess they've tried it. The problem is that the C people won't move the back of the plane. They just stake out the prime real estate at the front of the plane. Well, I still think it could be accomplished. But then the cabin crew would have to play Cop and that would take all the fun out flying Southwest.

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