Incoming Southwest CEO leaves door open to assigned seating

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Southwest is known for its open seating and assigning of boarding positions.
Southwest is known for its open seating and assigning of boarding positions. Photo Credit: Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines incoming CEO Bob Jordan said Wednesday that the carrier may consider doing seat assignments.

"Could we one day need to take back up the assigned-seating question? I think we may have to do that," Bob Jordan said during a Southwest Business virtual town hall meeting. 

Jordan added that the seating question is not on Southwest's immediate docket. There are no plans in place to make a change. 

We are committed to continuing to look at our product, making sure it's relevant.– Southwest incoming CEO Bob Jordan

But he said that the airline should delve into the matter to determine whether assigning seats could have a positive impact on aircraft turn times and operations, as well as to determine how important seat assignments are to business travelers. 

"Just know this. We are committed to continuing to look at our product, making sure it's relevant," Jordan said. 

Southwest's practice of open seating and assigning boarding positions is a brand differentiator. Jordan emphasized that the carrier won't reverse another longstanding differentiator -- free checked bags. And he doesn't foresee the creation of a first class or seats with more legroom. 

He said, however, that the carrier needs to provide more reliable WiFi for its business clientele. 

Jordan also laid out the carrier's priorities for this year. Chief among them is hiring 8,000 to 10,000 workers. Doing so, he said, is crucial to restoring operational reliability. High cancellation numbers have periodically plagued the airline since the middle of last year. 

"We need to get back to the point where you can set your watch by the reliability of our operations," Jordan said. 
Another Southwest priority for this year is restoring its full in-flight service offering, which remains curtailed due to the pandemic. 

The carrier also aspires to return to consistent profitability and to renew its emphasis on employee relations, Jordan said. 

Speaking to an audience of business travelers, the incoming CEO noted the importance of restoring frequencies on business routes that have been pared back during the pandemic. 

He said that as Southwest hires more staff, it will be able to return grounded aircraft to the sky and begin utilizing new planes. Southwest expects to take delivery of 114 aircraft this year. That should lead to a meaningful return of network depth by this summer. 

Still, Jordan noted that Southwest is using 120 aircraft to support the combination of its expansion during the pandemic to 18 new markets and its build-up of Hawaii service.  Those utilizations will slow the pace that the airline can resume pre-pandemic frequency levels. 

"It's going to take into 2023 to restore the network completely back to where we were in 2019," he said. 
Jordan takes over as Southwest CEO on Feb. 1. He will succeed the retiring Gary Kelly.

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