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Southwest Airlines Introduces Automated Boarding Pass.

After 30 years of reliable service, Southwest Airlines
bids farewell to its å?eplasticå?f boarding process.

Southwest has started the gradual retirement of its reusable plastic boarding card in favor of an automated system that issues a paper boarding card at more locations within the airport. Expanding Customer checkin to three convenient locations within the airport means Southwest Customers stand in fewer lines.

“Southwest Airlines was founded on the principles of making air travel more affordable and convenient for Customers. The plastic boarding card helped us do that, but today, we have a new system that gives our Customers more flexibility and hopefully saves them time,” said Dave Ridley, Southwest`s vice president of ground operations. “We`ve gotten big enough, and airport security measures have become more restrictive, to the point that many of our Customers were spending a considerable amount of time in a line. The Automated Boarding Pass was designed to provide better service for our Customers.”

Being plastic, Southwest`s familiar boarding cards were only available at the Departure Gate. Each Customer, whether he or she had already checked in luggage at the Ticket Counter or with a Skycap, had to again stand in line at the Departure Gate to receive the reusable plastic card. The numbered cards arranged Customers into groups of 30 for efficient boarding and were then surrendered to the Southwest boarding agent for reuse on another flight. (Southwest Airlines does not assign individual seats.) Under the new system, Customers are still organized into boarding groups, but rather than send everyone to the Departure Gate for a boarding pass, Southwest will now issue boarding passes at the Ticket Counter, Skycap Counter, and Departure Gate.

“Advancements in technology allow us to offer a high-tech solution that still delivers our `high touch` brand of Customer Service,” Ridley said. “We`ve not changed our open seating policy, and we will still board in groups based on when the Customer checks in for the flight. We`ve simply made it possible for Customers to check in for their flights at more than one location which means most Customers will stand in only one line, excluding security.”


Up to 90 minutes before scheduled departure, Southwest Airlines` Customers may check in for their flight at either the Skycap Counter, Ticket Counter, or Departure Gate. At any of these locations, a boarding pass will be issued with the flight number, date, Customer name, tracking number, itinerary, and boarding group (A, B, or C). Southwest Airlines does not assign seats, so Customers are organized into groups to expedite boarding. Those groups are now A, B, and C, in that order. When the appropriate boarding group is called, the Customer shows his or her boarding card and government-issued photo ID to the agent. Once onboard, a Customer may select any available seat. The Customer will receive the “stub”(receipt) from the boarding pass for future reference. This receipt should be retained as proof of Rapid Rewards frequent flyer credit or in case the Customer wishes to exit the aircraft for any reason. In 1972, after several months of operation, Southwest Airlines found it needed an efficient way to organize its growing Customer base. Its head of operations at Dallas` Love Field airport started handing each Customer a number as they checked in at the gate so that Customers waiting the longest would be among the first to board the aircraft. Customers were boarded in groups based on the numbers they received when checking in. The system quickly spread to the carrier`s two other cities at the time, Houston and San Antonio.

Thirty years later, Southwest Airlines was ordering about 160,000 plastic boarding cards a year to maintain the plastic boarding system in 59 airports. Additional security measures in place following September 11, 2001, complicated the manual process and meant that many Southwest Customers were standing in up to three sometimes lengthy lines before boarding a flight.

“Since September 11, our top operational priority has been improving the airport experience by reducing the amount of time our Customers spend in line at the airport,” Ridley said. “We`ve increased our security checkpoint capacity by about 30 percent, we`ve added more than 100 ticket counter positions, and we`ve now eliminated at least one line many of our Customers were standing in at the airport.” A Few Fun Facts

—Over the past 30 years, Customers waiting for Southwest flights have made great use of the sturdy plastic boarding card. In addition to being a requirement for boarding, Southwest Customers have used the cards as a bookmark, flyswatter, back scratcher, face fan, shoe horn, writing surface, power bracelet (kids, of course), toothpick (we know, yuck), visor/sun shade, telescope, and pocket protector.

—There are 23 different colored boarding cards in circulation to avoid confusion over which cards are being used for each flight. To assist Customers and Employees who are colorblind, the name of the color is printed on the card.

—The cards are made of 23-gauge stock known as polyethylene plastic. This same plastic is used to make milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and bulletproof vests.

—About 7,920 boarding cards, placed end to end, span one mile.

—Southwest introduced a boarding card shaped like the state of California in the early 1990s to highlight its tremendous growth there. The card was used in Southwest`s eight California cities: San Diego, Los Angeles, Burbank, Ontario, Orange County, San Jose, Oakland, and Sacramento.

—The plastic boarding cards have been replaced temporarily for special events such as the inauguration of service from Boise, ID (with a potato stand-in) and from Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, and Orange County, California (with oranges, of course).


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