October 30, 2004 in Business

Southwest may end seating system

David Koenig Associated Press
 

DALLAS – Southwest Airlines, the discount carrier that has long stuck to its policy of seating passengers on a first-come, first-served basis, is seriously considering assigning seats, officials said.

“I know that sounds like heresy coming from my lips,” Southwest president Colleen Barrett said Thursday.

Barrett said that while technological advances make Southwest open to assigned seating, the carrier has no immediate plans to offer it and wouldn’t make any change for at least a year.

For years, the 33-year-old Southwest has said assigning seats would eat up precious time, preventing loading and unloading passengers in less than 20 minutes at an airport gate. But testing as recently as four months ago showed the airline can still meet its strict timetable with assigned seats.

Also Thursday, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the airline will expand service at Chicago Midway Airport, where it competes with ATA Airlines. ATA’s parent, Indianapolis-based ATA Holdings Corp., filed for bankruptcy protection Tuesday. ATA and Southwest are the two biggest carriers at Midway.

Given high jet fuel prices and cutthroat competition on fares, ATA probably won’t be the last U.S. carrier to go bankrupt, Kelly said.

He said Dallas-based Southwest probably wouldn’t be interested in ATA’s planes, which are a larger version of the Boeing 737 than it flies, but might consider bidding for other assets including airport gates. Either way, he said, Southwest plans to add flights at Chicago Midway early next year, he said.

Kelly also said Southwest is no longer considering in-flight entertainment systems, which typically involve things such as individual TVs. He said such systems might cost up to $100 million. “It won’t add one dollar to revenue,” Kelly said. “It’s high-cost. It’s not a core need for airline customers.”

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