Can data science help Dallas-based Southwest Airlines speed up the frustratingly slow process of getting passengers on airplanes?
The carrier that stubbornly refuses to back away from unassigned seating and two free checked bags is taking another try at the complex task of boarding passengers starting at Atlanta International Airport in December.
“What if we went families first and you have to go sit towards the back of the aircraft?” Southwest vice president of business transformation Angela Marano said. “That’s really a minor change in terms of like the effort to do that, but it could have a really big impact.”
The move comes amid a series of leadership changes at Southwest over the last year that put new people into the CEO, chief operating officer and chief commercial officer roles, including elevating employees such as Marano into more front-and-center jobs.
The “10-minute turn” was a hallmark of Southwest’s early business strategy in which it worked to get planes in, unloaded of passengers and bags, reloaded again and then out of the airport gate in 10 minutes or less.
Southwest co-founder Herb Kelleher credited this strategy with lowering costs during the carrier’s earlier years by allowing Southwest to fly more flights using fewer aircraft.
CEO Bob Jordan, who took over in February, has said the company needs to modernize its technology to keep the airline running efficiently and preserve its low-cost structure.
“We need to modernize our operation,” Jordan said this week. “I think as we’ve grown we’ve out scaled, and now we’ve outgrown our tools.”
Jordan cited the large amount of literal paperwork exchanged when an airplane unloads and reloads, something the airline is trying to eliminate through technology.
“There’s been some regulatory requirements about what one must do before you turn the aircraft,” Southwest chief operating officer Andrew Watterson said. “Back when we had our infamous 10-minute turns, the FAA didn’t insist that everybody be seated, which it has since.”
Airlines have studied the boarding issue from years, including proposals such as boarding the back of the airplane first.
But there are other complications, such as the upgrades people pay for to board first and get the first shot at overhead bins. Southwest charges $30 to $60 for early boarding and gives priority to frequent flyers and credit card holders.
Jordan has said the company studied moving to an assigned seating policy and that it’s something they would consider if customers demanded a change. Instead of assigning seating, Southwest assigns a boarding number and then passengers pick their own seats.
Usually, people with the first boarding numbers get seats in the front and on the window or aisle, while lower boarding numbers mean middle seats toward the back.
Last month, Chicago-based United Airlines took aim at Southwest’s unassigned seating with a series of web advertisements and a website to remind Southwest passengers to check in 24 hours in advance.
But Southwest isn’t moving away from its seating policies anytime soon and is instead looking at small tweaks to speed up the process.
“The idea is that we want to put these things out there tested with real-life customers, tweak them, see if they work, make a decision,” Marano said.
“So all things are on the table,” she said.