In order for a low-cost airline to be able to offer its tickets cheaply and its business model to work, it has to keep its costs low. It doesn’t pay high salaries, has a simple inflight product, chooses airports with low fees, operates a one-size-fits-all fleet to keep cockpit staff and maintenance costs within reasonable bounds.
And there is another essential factor: a low-cost airline must use its aircraft as best as possible – i.e. keep them in the air as much time as possible. In order for this to succeed, the so-called turnaround time should be as short as possible.
This is the time on the ground between landing and taking off again, during which the aircraft is unloaded and loaded, cleaned and refueled, among other things, and during which travelers board and disembark.
The oldest and largest low-cost airline in the world is Southwest Airlines from the USA with a fleet of more than 750 Boeing 737s. It started in 1971 and was already financially weakened by previous legal disputes.
The young airline calculated that it would need a turnaround time of ten minutes for its destinations. “If you can’t do a ten-minute turn, you’ll be fired and we’ll hire someone new. And if he can’t do a ten-minute turn, we’ll fire him too,” said then-manager Bill Franklin to his employees on the ground, according to Southwest’s own records. “And we’re going to keep firing until we find someone who can pull this off.”
And so, Southwest’s legendary ten-minute turnaround time was born. Today, the low-cost airline is far from it. In 2018, their average turnaround time was 35 minutes, rising to over 40 minutes in 2019, according to USA Today.
The reasons for this are diverse. According to the Dallas Morning Post, Southwest’s current operations manager, Andrew Watterson, refers to requirements that did not previously exist, for example from the American aviation authority. In the ten-minute times, “the FAA didn’t insist that everyone sit on the plane,” Watterson said.
That’s why the boarding process is currently an adjustment screw that Southwest wants to turn to get faster again. The airline has no assigned seats, only three boarding groups (A, B and C) and boarding numbers. Both only say when a passenger can board the machine. Those who pay for early boarding and frequent flyers board first.
Once on board, there is a free choice of seats. The first rows, window and aisle seats usually fill up first. Middle seats at the back of the jet stay vacant the longest.
United Airlines is currently making fun of Southwest’s actions with an advertising campaign and its own website. The airline jokes that low-cost airlines require you to check in 24 hours in advance to get a boarding class and number that allows early boarding.
“Once upon a time there was a Southwest passenger who forgot to check in exactly 24 hours before his flight. And he ended up in the dreaded boarding group C. Dun dun dunnnn,” reads the website, which can be reached at notgroupc.com. You can even register for a reminder call there.
Southwest has considered moving to assigned seats, but has always decided against it. And that’s still the case today.
According to the Dallas Morning Post, airline boss Bob Jordan, who has been in office since February, explained that adjustments still have to be made in order to achieve faster turnaround times again. For example, the intention is to complete the formalities for loading and unloading more quickly through technological modernization.
And the details of boarding are also under scrutiny. “What if we got the families on board first and they had to sit in the back of the plane?” says Angela Marano, the modernization manager. “It’s a small change in terms of effort, but it could have a big impact.”
Southwest Airlines wants to identify possible approaches by analyzing large amounts of data – and then test them in reality.
“The idea is that we test these things with real customers, tweak them, see if they work, and then make a decision,” explains Marano.
This article was written by Timo Nowack
Originally posted by aeroTelegraph, United scoffs at Southwest’s boarding method.