updated 9/19/2007 8:29:11 PM ET 2007-09-20T00:29:11

Southwest Airlines Co. is sticking with its unusual system of letting passengers find their own seats instead of going to one that’s been assigned to them.

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Southwest said Wednesday that its 36-year policy of “open-seating” is faster and customers like it.

The airline will tinker with the current system in early November, however, by assigning a number to each passenger within its three boarding groups. While this wouldn’t assign them a seat, it would dictate the order in which they could board the plane to find their own.

In another change, Southwest will stop automatically boarding families with young children first. Unless they have a coveted “A” boarding pass, families will board after the first 60 passengers beginning Oct. 2.

Chief Executive Gary Kelly said it wasn’t fair for families who arrived just before takeoff to jump ahead of other passengers who were already in line.

Southwest has conducted a Hamlet-like debate over its boarding policy for several years. Kelly said the airline was leaning toward switching to assigned seating until it surveyed customers and found that only about 30 percent favored a change.

And even for those travelers who wanted assigned seats, it didn’t dictate which airline they favored, he said.

Southwest also considered a hybrid approach — letting customers pay extra for an assigned seat — but thought it would be too complicated, Kelly said.

It settled for a smaller change. Passes will have a number in addition to the familiar A, B or C. A traveler with B-16 would board ahead of someone with B-35 even if passenger B-16 rushed over from the food court just as boarding began.

Currently, the late-arriving traveler would have to go to the end of the “B” line.

To avoid the back of the line, customers wait at the gate an average of 45 to 60 minutes, said Executive Vice President Bob Jordan.

Southwest operates 3,300 flights a day and carries more domestic passengers than any other airline — 96.3 million last year — so any change in seating procedures would be a logistical challenge. The issue has long divided passengers.

Early birds who arrived first at the gate — or now, those who check in 24 hours in advance on the Internet — felt they earned an “A” boarding pass that guaranteed a window or aisle seat. The “B” passengers probably wouldn’t get an aisle seat, but they might find a pleasant-looking person to sit next to.

But those stuck in the “C” line had to rearrange contents of the overhead bin to make room for their carryon bag, then wedge into a center seat. Critics called open seating an undignified cattle call, and many wrote to Southwest to complain.

Southwest tested reserved seating last fall on about 200 flights from San Diego, then repeated the experiment last month in San Antonio. It surveyed the San Diego passengers and other frequent fliers.

The verdict, Kelly said, was clear. “Customers like choosing their seats,” he said.

Southwest also learned that assigned seating failed to speed up the boarding process — it even took one to four minutes longer — and so rejecting it was easy, Kelly said.

The Dallas-based carrier has stuck stubbornly to many of the vestiges of its 1970s roots.

Southwest stopped dressing its flight attendants in hot pants — and stopped calling them stewardesses — many years ago, but it kept using reusable plastic boarding passes long after other carriers switched to paper. Southwest was forced to change for security reasons after 9-11.

In the last few years, Southwest spent millions on technology that would have made it easier to end open seating. Then it spent “a couple million” testing assigned seating, Jordan said.

For that reason, Wednesday’s decision to stick with the status quo came as a surprise.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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