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Culture or convenience?

Madalene Hubbell doesn't like riding in the back of the plane, where the engine noise and bumpy ride upset her.

So she and her husband, Donald, were happy to receive a perk for getting to the Southwest Airlines gate at Tampa International Airport 90 minutes before their departure time: low-number boarding cards entitling them to be among the first 30 passengers to pick seats on the flight to Nashville.

Or so they thought. As boarding began, the Hubbells were pulled out of line for a random security check. By the time agents searched their carry-on bags, wanded them for metal and checked their shoes, dozens of people filled the seats in the front of the cabin.

"It doesn't pay to get there early," said Donald Hubble of Parma, Ohio. "We ended up in the back behind the wings. She was unhappy and frustrated."

Open seating _ dubbed cattle-car boarding by passengers who don't like it _ is as much a fixture at no-frills Southwest as peanuts, wise-cracking flight crews and cheap fares. The plastic numbered boarding card is a cultural icon for Southwest.

But the plastic card is on the way out, and Southwest is coming under increasing pressure to offer reserved seating as the hassles of flying convince many travelers to skip unnecessary trips or drive instead.

"Customers pay more in terms of their time to get a good seat," said Joe Brancatelli, a business travel columnist who runs the Web site JoeSentMe.com. "There's a vast market of business travelers they give up because they don't offer reserved seats."

Southwest, the nation's sixth-largest airline, hasn't sold reserved seats since it started flying in 1971, with three planes serving three Texas cities. It isn't planning to change now, spokeswoman Ginger Hardage said.

Open seating helps the airline keep "turn times" _ how long its takes to unload and reload a plane's passengers and luggage _ to about 25 minutes, she said. That lets Southwest get more flying time out of its fleet each day than competing carriers.

If the average turn time increased by just 10 minutes, Hardage said, Southwest would need to buy 31 new Boeing 737s at $36-million each to maintain its current flight schedule.

"Southwest is able to be the low-fare airline because of our low costs," she said. "Assigned seating would increase our costs."

But other low-fare airlines have quick turn times and still have reserved seating, said Donald L. Pevsner, an attorney who specializes in aviation consumer rights.

"Delta Express does it, JetBlue does it," he said. "They're the last airline in the country to be a holdout. They don't have any excuse other than stubbornness."

Like all airlines, Southwest is struggling to speed passengers through airports. Its top operational priority this year is cutting the time customers stand in lines to no more than 15 minutes, chief executive Jim Parker told a business group in Reno, Nev., last week.

"It's a foxhole by foxhole battle," he said. "I promise you we're going to do better."

A key part of the campaign includes eliminating the old plastic boarding cards. Every passenger now must stand at the gate to get a numbered card.

By this summer, Southwest plans to have computer systems in place to let skycaps as well as agents at the ticket counter and at the gate issue paper boarding passes. The passes will still bear numbers rewarding early-arriving passengers with the first chance to board. The idea is to require that customers have only one contact with an employee before boarding the plane.

Southwest also is buying new screening equipment. At Tampa International, for example, the airline doubled the number of X-ray machines at Airside A from three to six. Before that, lines at peak periods had stretched across the main terminal as customers waited to catch shuttle cars.

"We want to reduce the hassle factor," said spokeswoman Christing Turneabe-Connelly. "We don't think people have a fear of flying. But we want people to get over the fear of the airport."

Last month, revenue for the major airlines was down 23 percent compared with the same month last year, according to the Air Transport Association, the industry group for the largest airlines.

The number of domestic travelers flying full-fare or first-class tickets was down 20 percent, an indication that high-paying business travelers have been slower to return than leisure fliers.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks brought tighter security, business traveler Ed Moore could arrive later for his Southwest flights than he could for other airlines.

"I could show up a half hour, 40 minutes ahead and get on," said Moore, who works for Tobi-Alta Inc., a Tampa food broker. "Now it's two hours for a morning flight around 7 o'clock. It's cost them their advantage."

Customers such as Linda Conn of Hudson say they love everything about Southwest except the open seating.

"Assigned seats would be better," said Conn, standing in a line for 45 minutes to get her boarding card for a flight to Providence on Thursday. "Why are we all standing here to get a decent boarding pass?"

Southwest said it hasn't heard an outcry for reserved seats and is taking steps to help passengers pulled out of line for random security checks, Hardage said. Agents won't board the passengers with card numbers higher than 60 until all security "selectees" have been screened and boarded.

Brancatelli, the business travel columnist, suggested a compromise: Why not offer customers the option of buying a reserved seat for an extra $10 or so?

"A lot of business customers are saying they don't want to queue up with the herd," he said. "I think Southwest is cutting off their nose to save a part of the culture."

_ Information from the Reno Gazette-Journal was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettelsptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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