Sky Talk

What happens when Southwest CEO Gary Kelly says “assigning seats”

Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly told investors that lower fuel costs and added flights to Dallas Love Field have boosted the airline’s first quarter profits. (Special to the Star-Telegram/Gregg Ellman)
Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly told investors that lower fuel costs and added flights to Dallas Love Field have boosted the airline’s first quarter profits. (Special to the Star-Telegram/Gregg Ellman) Special to the Star-Telegram/Gregg Ellman

For a brief moment on Thursday, it looked like Southwest Airlines was ready to end the cattle call part of its boarding process.

During a conference call with investors, Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly was asked about opportunities that new technology will bring the airline. And in response, Kelly mentioned the new passenger reservation system that the carrier has been working on for the past few years.

“A new reservation system will come with capabilities that we’ll explore, whether it’s code-sharing or whether it’s assigning seats or things like that,” Kelly said. “We’re not, at this point, committed to making those kinds of changes either.”

Southwest has always had first-come, first-serve seating on its flights, leading to long lines at its gates. A few years ago, Southwest launched “early-bird” check-in where passengers could pay an extra $10 for front of the boarding line privileges.

So when Kelly uttered the words “assigning seats,” it prompted a few eyebrows to be raised. Was this the end to unassigned seating?

In short, no.

About thirty minutes later on the conference call, Kelly clarified his remarks, saying the airline had looked at assigned seating before and dismissed it.

“I was simply offering up an example of the kinds of new capabilities we will get with new technology,” Kelly said. “We have no, absolutely, no thought, no plans, no desire, to assign seats whatsoever.

Here’s a few other tidbits that came up during the conference call.

-The new service added to Dallas Love Field after the expiration of the Wright Amendment restrictions is a “raging success,” Kelly said. Southwest plans to expand to 180 daily flights by the end of the summer.

“It is very clear that the demand is much greater than 20 gates,” Kelly said. The airline operates 18 of the 20 gates at the downtown Dallas airport.

Chief financial officer Tammy Romo said that some of the routes out of Dallas have load factors over 90 percent and the new markets are maturing very quickly at Love Field.

-Southwest has added 2,000 new full-time employees in the past year. Kelly said a vast majority of the increase has been flight attendants as the larger Boeing 737-800 needs an additional flight attendant on each flight.

-Lower fuel prices were a tremendous boost to the airline’s bottom line in the first quarter. Fuel prices were down 35 percent and that contributed over $450 million in fuel cost savings, Kelly said.

“I hope lower, stable, energy prices are here to stay,” Kelly said.

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