Southwest Airlines Getting Technology to Assign Seats and Sell First Class

Sort of like the development of the atomic bomb, Southwest’s reservations system upgrade project ‘is a dangerous technology and we promise not to use it’.

Southwest is renowned for not assigning seats or flying with a first or business class at the front of the plane.

But it will have the capabilities to assign seats, sell extra legroom, and create a dual-class cabin when it completes several technology projects in the next three to five years.

…Southwest won’t necessarily make these changes but when these IT projects are finished the airline would have the capability to assign seats, sell extra legroom and launch a dual-class cabin, [Southwest CEO Gary] Kelly said.

“We are not planning on making those changes” but have the capability to do so in the future, Kelly said.

Kelly “was adamant that a key part of Southwest’s strategy is not to ‘nickel and dime’ passengers, or charge for the first two checked bags or levy change fees.”

When Southwest first began they were all about speed. At one point financial struggles meant having to give back their fourth Boeing 737 and managing their full schedule with just three aircraft. They invented the ’10 minute turn’ with passengers deplaning from the back while the next flight boarded from the front.

Starting as an intra-Texas airline, they weren’t subject to Civil Aeronautics Board regulation. They could fly where they wanted (within the state) without a years-long process to obtain permission, and they could charge what they wanted as well.

Prior to deregulation, the Civil Aeronautics Board ‘experimented’ with price competition and allowed Texas International Airlines to undercut Southwest pricing within the state. That’s when Southwest introduced its own two tier fare structure — customers could choose, but paying the higher $26 fare meant walking away from the flight with a free bottle of liquor. And in 1978 Southwest became the largest liquor distributor in the State of Texas.

One cabin of service, simple fares were part and parcel of the Southwest route model. They’ve never built the IT infrastructure to do much more and today they aren’t really equipped to even charge for checked bags if they wanted to.

There’s little question they could benefit from greater reservations system functionality. They could publish a full year’s schedule at once, rather than loading flights in chunks months at a time. They could offer customers more connections using their existing flights than they’re able to today. And they could offer a differentiated product and possibly earn more money as a result though they recognize it would fundamentally alter the Southwest brand to do so.

Southwest flies internationally now. Over time they acquired Muse Air, Morris Air, assets of ATA, and AirTran. “LUV”‘s flight attendants no longer wear gogo boots and hot pants, and their automated ticketing machines are no longer called “Quickies.”

In other words, Southwest is on the verge of becoming all grown up.

It’s not 1986 anymore:

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Actually as I remember the original turn arounds, they turned a plane in 10 minutes. Only flew between Houston, San Antonio and Dallas and the each plane departed the next airport 1 hour from their previous departure and gate to gate was 50 minutes thus a 10 minute turn and it worked!!! This way 2 planes could do every hour departures from any of the three routes.

  2. Gary, are these the kind of changes that they would need to make if they wanted to partner with other carriers to offer codeshares and the like? Or is it more likely an omen that they’re going to be installing some curtains on their planes?

  3. Seat assignments would be a game changer as I would actually fly them as oppose to never fly them
    The anxiety of watching a Southwest plane board is akin to watching shoppers at a Walmart enter a store on Black Friday .Not for me.
    I tried Southwest on their most expensive ticket with priority boarding and folks still almost ran me over
    No Thanks. Happy to pay but not be trampled elsewhere!

  4. I hope they don’t change a thing. The fact that they can start boarding 15 minutes prior to departure and still leave a few minutes early is truly a site to behold. And I am one who loves to select a seat once in board, that way I can avoid children, “overcrowded” rows (for lack of a better term), etc.

  5. Since many passengers now pay a $12.50 early bird fee to ensure they’re not going to be stuck in a middle seat in the rear of the plane, I predict that there will be an even higher fee to select a seat in advance

  6. The limited schedule horizon provides a benefit to all: Schedule changes to flights already booked are rare.

  7. “They could offer customers more connections using their existing flights than they’re able to today.”
    A very interesting nugget in the post. I’ve wondered why certain cities are not reachable from MSP on Southwest. That would be one benefit of beefed up IT that I’d welcome.

  8. If WN had wanted to introduce first class seats, they would’ve simply kept the Airtran/Valuejet reservations system. If they really plan to make use of this new ability, I’ll bet it is for some future codesharing with another airline that DOES have first class seats.

  9. “The anxiety of watching a Southwest plane board is akin to watching shoppers at a Walmart enter a store on Black Friday .Not for me.”

    On our latest trip, we flew SW there & AA back, and the latter boarding was as you describe above. We had “Priority”, but everyone kept crowding up to the gate so that we literally couldn’t get through.

    On our SW flight, everyone lined up in order, and we easily found our four seats together.

    I wonder if it’s the difference between checking and carrying on bags. The overheads on the AA flight were full because they charge for checked. That makes people anxious to get to those bins first so they don’t have to gate-check.

  10. Agree with Debra – the last time I flew AA, the crowd around the gate means you have to line up early, if you can wade thru the masses in the next group hovering at the fringe of priority. Overhead space is a complete crapshoot. WN, on the other hand, is an orderly, numbered line, and they get it done every single time within 15-20 mins. No, it’s not FC, but I often get an exit row, and I can bring better food on board than any airline can serve. (Warm cookies excluded, lol)

  11. Happens I fly southwest a LOT — “luv” the companion pass. But to be frank, something’s got to be done about the increasingly unpleasant cattle rustling atmosphere at SWA loading. (at the gates — esp. in Atlanta & Orlando, and on the planes themselves) Moreover, more and more folks are somehow learning to game the system for getting boarding passes. I log on exactly 24 hours before a departure — and even then I’m lucky to be spared getting stuck with a cramped middle seat on one of the notorious, tired, aging 737’s….

    and I find myself long for JetBlue instead.

    Oh, and what’s with the planes taking soooo long to load and unload of late…. answer — the classic case of the special needs passeger or the elderly person blocking the aisle, unable to hoist a suitcase to the overhead bin — and flight crew looking the other way….

    As for the hotpants….. no, sorry, don’t go there. Curious to notice that the crews on so many of the SWA flights looking …. ummmm…. like they’re transfers from USAir. ;-(

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