The March 24 issue (subscribers only) of Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine includes an editorial roundtable we held with CEO and vice chairman Gary Kelly on March 7. There's no way we could fit everything in the magazine, so below are some excerpts that didn't make the cut. And you can click here to listen to a 2:54 podcast on Kelly's thoughts about the ATA deal.
Aviation Week: When you were assessing on whether or not to go to assigned seating, what did you discover on how that could affect your gate utilization, since Southwest is proud of its high levels?
Gary Kelly: We had heard for years that conventional wisdom said it takes longer to board an aircraft with assigned seating. So we really approached it in a scientific way and developed computer models to experiment with different boarding techniques to see if we couldn’t disprove that theory. And we did. Southwest arrived at several theories that said we ought to be able to board the aircraft faster. That was a test it had to pass. It also had to be something that customers wanted. And it needed to be more efficient or at least it had to have the same cost so it didn’t impact our turn times. For the first time in our history, we did real tests in the field in San Diego in the fall of 2006. We proved that it was slower.
The only theory that we concluded from that was there’s something about a sense of urgency that causes people to slow down in the boarding process. But customers told us they didn’t want assigned seating, so it was a no-brainer for us. It put us back a bit in terms of our timetable. I was hoping we could have introduced our new and improved boarding process earlier than the fall of last year. But since we were on the track for assigned seating, we went back to the well and said let’s find something that will work. Our employees came up with the assigned boarding positions in line, and I though that was ingenious. I’m very proud of that.
AW: So even those who aren’t getting preferential treatment are O.K. with it?
GK: As with any change, I’m not going to tell you it’s a unanimous endorsement, but the response we’ve gotten about the new boarding process has been overwhelmingly positive. And the litmus test for is our employees. Our employees are really invested in Southwest Airlines. It’s a trendy, consultanty term, but companies would kill to have the kind of engagement we have with our people. We can’t tinker with our product without hearing from them, and they overwhelmingly like the changes. So yes, we’ve gotten some pushback from some customers. But the answer is pretty easy - people have a choice. If boarding first is important to you, we’re giving you an easy way to access that. And if it’s not, then you save money. It works well, recognizing there’s no perfect way to choose how to board and aircraft.