[June 21, 2006]

CRM Darling Southwest Airlines To... Sigh... Assign Seats.

By David Sims
david@firstcoffee.biz

The news as of the first coffee this morning, and the music is Dizzy Gillespie’s “Ow:”

No, say it ain’t so! We CRM guys love Southwest Airlines. Love, love, love ‘em. Herb Kelleher, the airlines’ late, much-lamented CEO is our Farrah Fawcett-style poster boy for How A CEO Should Be: Hard-nosed yet fair and honest on the business side, your favorite uncle when dealing with customers. When companies came nosing around Company Days for secrets of success Herb used to make them do the Macarena.


We love the plastic, reusable boarding passes. We love stewardesses hiding in the overhead luggage bins. When First Coffee flew Southwest back in college, before I knew it was an Anointed CRM Icon, I loved the wine coolers before takeoff and the stewardess uniforms of hot-pants shorts and t-shirts.

We love them because they’re so common-sense even those of us who don’t have MBAs can understand what they’re doing. Southwest President Colleen Barrett told this reporter a few years ago “Other airlines can’t do what we do, because what we do is too simple.”

But mainly Southwest is revered by us in the CRM commentariat for their historically stratospheric – by airlines’ standards – customer satisfaction ratings. People will fly Southwest if they have at all of an option, because they simply like the way they’re treated, they like the way things are done to focus on the customer, and they like the fact that it’s different. Which is the entire theory of CRM: Treating your customers the way they want to be treated will bring them back for more. Company culture par excellance.

A hallmark of that culture might get toasted as Southwest is proposing experimenting with (sigh) assigned seating. You know, like your third-grade teacher, who wanted you all to sit in the same seats, she claimed it was so she could “learn your names” easier, which of course wasn’t true since she never called on you she always called on that teacher’s pet Sally B. Joyner, who should’ve had a little brass toad on her desk.

You’d think a business as successful as Southwest – 31 consecutive years of profit, market value greater than all other major airlines combined, which sure is due partly to common sense-radical ideas such as standardized aircraft, and keeping good employees happy to cut down on turnover – wouldn’t kill the golden goose. And maybe they’re not, maybe people really like assigned seating. I don’t, but then again I don’t like American Idol or moussaka either, but I do notice that “first-come first-served” means people tend to show up on time a lot more often than when they have an assigned seat.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting this morning that Southwest “will try out several different boarding methods using assigned seating on about 200 flights departing from San Diego International Airport beginning July 10.”

That’s it? Come on, lighten up Dave, it’s not like they’re suddenly going to turn into customer service troglodytes like Northwest or Delta overnight, are they?

Well, no, and it’s not like they’re the only ones using what the vulgar refer to as “cattle car” seating, as if you don’t feel distinctly bovine from the minute you walk into any airport for any plane anywhere. On other planes you simply get an assigned stall number.

But open seating might be a thing of the past. Jane Gardner writes that low-cost Australian airline Jetstar will discontinue unassigned seating. See, when rock concert promoters use unassigned seating it’s called “festival seating,” although granted, festival seating got a bad name after that Who concert in Cincinnati, so why is it “cattle call” on airlines? Inquiring minds want to know, just as they’d like the euphemistic simp who decided to soften terrorists into “insurgents” and “militants” to please get back to reality.

Not all are happy about Jetstar going to assigned seating. Nadia D’Almeida, her husband Tim, and their two-year-old Aidan, who flew Jetstar from Sydney to Ballina told Gardner the existing first-in first-served system is “fantastic.”

“When you’re traveling with a child, and carrying all the gear that comes with it you get so overwhelmed,” Nadia told Gardner. “On Jetstar, if you have a young child they let you get on first. It’s so nice after such an exhausting journey.”

Since Jetstar began flying over the Great Southland a couple years ago it’s used open seating, but Gardner reports “Jetstar chief executive Alan Joyce said automatic seat allocations will begin on all domestic services on or after October 29.”

And why, pray tell, screw with a good thing beloved by families with young kids, for whom flying’s such a chore that anything to ease the ordeal is as welcome as sunglasses on the Sahara? Let’s see what Joyce told the Australian Tourism Exchange: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah manage the costs blah blah blah blah blah blah blah those costs can be managed.”

Yeah, journalists get like a dog in a Far Side cartoon if they stay in this business long enough. “Mr. County Supervisor, is it true that you knew the state would build the mental hospital on that plot of scrubland out past the old MacPherson place on Route 29 when you bought it for 29 cents an acre on the advice of your pal Weenie Hoskins, chair of the State Land Appropriations Committee, which is now buying it for $5,000 an acre?”

“Son, ah dunno what yer insinuatin’…” Right. Where’s that whiskey bottle…

So the idea is that assigning seating saves money. How? There’s a science of boarding planes, according to a good sketch in Aircraft Maintenance Technology.

We’re all familiar with what’s called, in complicated industry jargon, the “back-to-front” method of boarding a plane. You know the drill: “Those sitting in rows 28 through 48…” You’d think that’d be the common-sense way. But it’s actually “probably the slowest way we could possibly do it,” according to Mark Ahasic, director of operational planning for JetBlue.

Evidently there are myriad options: “America West uses the ‘reverse pyramid’ method; Delta the ‘rotating zone;’ and United the ‘window-middle-aisle’ method,” AMT says, in pursuit of saving a minute or two of sitting at the gate.

Jet Blue conducted trials on more than 100 actual flights, as well as on a computer, recalcitrant barnyard animals and Abu Ghraib inmates and found the best way to board is known, in specific technical terminology, as “every man for himself:” On a 156-seat plane, AMT says, “passengers boarding all at once, after the elderly and those needing special assistance, took 17 minutes to settle into their assigned seats, about a minute faster than any other method Jet Blue tried.”

Such random seating is “less labor intensive,” Dean Breest, a spokesman for Northwest told AMT, and certainly the last thing First Coffee wants gate attendants doing is any extra work by having to pay attention to passengers as they chat with friends about how bravely the pilot for the flight you’re boarding is currently upholding the airline’s honor in the bar by taking on the entire Australian national rugby team in vodka Jell-O shots.

But really, AMT admits, the dirty fact is that “there’s no consensus among the airlines on the best way to avoid bottlenecks among child-toting, luggage-lugging, aisle-blocking passengers.” Which of course you, I and every yip-yappy dog in a carrier knows.

America West tried something called the “reverse pyramid” which “cut its average boarding time by two minutes and experienced a 21 percent decrease in flight delays,” and United thinks boarding according to “window-middle-aisle” will save four to five minutes per flight and $1 million a year.

Hey, airlines, how stupid do you think we are? You really expect us to believe that saving a minute or two boarding will help you do a better job of taking off and landing on time when after boarding EVERYONE HAS TO SIT ON THE PLANE FOR FORTY-FIVE MINUTES BEFORE TAKE-OFF?

Southwest even has the fastest boarding method, AMT admits, of dividing passengers into groups according to arrival time and letting them pick their own seats. Alas, it also “reportedly is the airline’s chief source of customer complaints.”

So even the best-run companies do get some customer complaints, and even in Eden Eve bites the apple. Southwest, after all, does have a business to run, and if assigned seating is really such a huge money-saver, well, that’s how it has to be, I guess. Entropy.

Just, can you bring back the wine coolers and hot pants?

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