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Stairs, selfies and a little fresh air: The future of Southwest Airlines boarding?

Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – My Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago pulled into gate B17 at Sacramento International Airport at 11:11 a.m.

Four minutes later, I was in the terminal.

And not because I was sitting in the front of the plane. I was stuck in row 28, two rows from the back of the Boeing 737, thanks to a lowly C boarding pass. (Southwest doesn't assign seats. It assigns boarding positions in A, B and C groups, and passengers pick any open seat when they get on the plane.)

The secret to the quick exit: the back door. Southwest lets passengers exit – and enter – from the front and back of the plane at Sacramento International Airport. 

The airline has tested dual boarding and deplaning in Sacramento and a couple of other cities on and off for the past few years to gauge how much faster it gets passengers on and off planes and reduces the turnaround time between flights.

Southwest's so-called turn times – a measure of the time from when the plane locks at the gate and leaves again – were as low as 10 minutes in the scrappy carrier's early days and have long been a financial boon and competitive advantage for Southwest. 

Today, they average 42 minutes. The airline's flights in Burbank and Long Beach, California, older airports where dual boarding and deplaning has long been the standard for airlines due to the airport facilities, have among the quickest turnaround times in the company.

"We're trying to see how much you can regularly get out of the turn by doing this,'' said Andrew Watterson, Southwest's executive vice president and chief revenue officer.

Southwest won't divulge time-saving specifics or other metrics from "dual-door operations,'' as they are formally known, in Sacramento beyond saying it is quicker than traditional boarding and has been a success. It is now the norm at the airport, and passengers are disappointed when it's not offered due to high winds or heavy rain.

"If we get the kinks out ... you could see this consistently done in a large number of stations,'' Watterson said.

Executives say no decision is imminent on whether to expand dual boarding and deplaning to other airports without major weather issues or facility limitations. The airline is weighing costs, safety and customer satisfaction. 

"It's just not as easy as pulling up another set of stairs (to the plane) and saying, "Get off or get on,'' said Steve Goldberg, Southwest's senior vice president of operations and hospitality.

Goldberg said the Sacramento experiment is just one piece of a puzzle Southwest is working on to make its operation more efficient as it approaches its 50th birthday in a couple of years.

"There are other opportunities within the turn we need to work on to gain the maximum potential,'' Goldberg said.

In October, the airline studied passenger behavior during boarding and deplaning on hundreds of flights in and out of Denver International Airport to see where and when bottlenecks occur. A company memo announcing the study cited the case of a passenger who gets out of his seat to retrieve something from the overhead bin, slowing or stopping boarding in the process. The airline has also been cracking down on passengers who bring more than one carry-on bag and one personal item.

Goldberg suggested Southwest will begin to announce some changes in early 2020.  One thing not on the table: assigned seats.

"We want to be bold,'' he said.

USA TODAY checked out dual boarding and deplaning in Sacramento and Long Beach in late October to see how it works and to gauge customer reaction. 

Here's how Southwest's dual boarding works 

Boarding for Southwest Airlines flight 6466 to Baltimore started with the usual routine.

The gate agent called for preboarders, followed by passengers in the front of the A boarding group, and scanned their boarding passes as they headed toward the jet bridge.

And then things took a turn. Literally.

"We've opened up the door to the left here,'' the agent at Gate B17 announced. "You're welcome to go outside to the left, to the rear of the aircraft to board it that way if you'd like. It does involve some stairs up and down.''

Travelers suddenly had to do some quick calculus after their boarding pass was scanned: board the usual way or head outside in hopes of a shorter line and, possibly, a better seat.

"It's like you’re at the grocery store; which line should you go in?'' Watterson said.

Southwest to those boarding at the back: Please don't rush to the front 

Southwest employees make one request of passengers heading outside, especially early in the boarding process.

"If you do go outside,'' the gate agent working the Baltimore flight said, "please try not to run all the way to the front (of the plane). Kind of defeats the purpose.''

He issued another reminder a few minutes later.

During dual boarding for a Sacramento to Phoenix flight, the gate agent asked passengers to "please not rush the front.'' 

"It'll just slow the boarding process down,'' she said.

Southwest is taking these and other steps on flights with dual boarding to preserve what it calls its boarding integrity. With no assigned seats, passengers are fanatic about preserving their boarding position on the airline and have no patience for those who try to game the system

Stairs sit at the back of a Southwest aircraft in Sacramento, California.

One passenger who was notified their Sacramento flight would have dual boarding this summer immediately raised a flurry of concerns about it on Southwest's online community forum. The unnamed traveler usually purchases Southwest's EarlyBird Check-In, which automatically assigns travelers boarding positions ahead of the airline's normal 24-hour online check-in, giving them a better spot in line.

"Does this mean that purchasing EarlyBird will no longer provide a relatively good assurance of a great boarding position? Will I end up having to compete with folks running down the tarmac to dash up the rear-door stairs to beat me to 'the good seats'? How will Southwest manage its traditional boarding-position-based system, when two doors are used for boarding?"

In addition to the announcements about not rushing to the front, Southwest deliberately waits to open the side door to the ramp until the first group of passengers is called to board.

Passengers at the front of Southwest's boarding line earned priority boarding by buying the airline's priciest fare, through their loyalty to the airline or its credit card, or paid a fee to jump the line. 

Flight attendants don't police where passengers sit once they board, but the airline says most passengers boarding from the back settle into seats in the middle or back of the plane.

"They see that people are coming (from the front entrance), so they generally sit in the back,'' said Bob Churchill, Southwest's operations manager in Sacramento.

'No wait if you go out the side door'  

Southwest employees in Sacramento make repeated announcements about the dual boarding option as the B and C boarding groups are called.

"Folks, there's a slight wait in the jet bridge. No wait if you go out the side door.''

The number of passengers heading outside in Sacramento varies by flight, with between 25 to 30% of passengers selecting it on flights during our two-day visit. Passengers preboarding are not eligible, and those unable to handle stairs or lugging heavy bags or small children generally opt out.

Dual boarding is most beneficial to, and popular with, Southwest passengers holding B or C boarding passes since they are farther back in line, and seats and overhead bins in the front fill up first.

Charlotte Lawrencewas holding boarding pass C12 on a flight to Nashville last week. It was the first time she'd seen dual boarding offered on Southwest, and she opted in.

There were two draws: "To get outside and not have to sit in a middle seat, preferably.''

Southwest frequent flier Terry Hackelman can sit almost anywhere on the plane given his top-tier status in Southwest's frequent flyer program gives him an A boarding pass, but he selects outside boarding about half the time when its offered on his flights out of Sacramento.

How does he decide? He surveys the passengers in line ahead of him, including preboarders.

"Sometimes it just takes them longer to get situated,'' he said. "You can quickly get to the back.''

Hackelman said he hopes Southwest expands dual boarding and deplaning to other airports. Watterson said it'll never be rolled out at every airport due to weather and facility limitations.

Karen Meris had A24 on her boarding pass and still headed outside, with her 14-year-old son Quinn, for the novelty. The pair took a photo in front of the plane.

Travelers Karen Meris, left, and son Quinn Meris take a selfie before boarding their Southwest Airlines flight from the back of the aircraft.

"I thought it would be a good opportunity for him to see something,’’ she said, adding that she probably wouldn't do it on her own because she felt safer boarding through the jet bridge.

Selfie stations on the way?

Southwest has learned a lot during its study in Sacramento. One of the most interesting things: passengers love to take photos or videos on their way to and from the plane.

Southwest ramp agent Sam Lal says he's frequently asked to snap photos for passengers. He asks them to share the photos on Instagram.

 “We’ve had people turn around and do the presidential wave,'' Churchill said. "It's pretty funny to watch.''

It's free marketing for Southwest, but snap-happy travelers can delay outside boarding and deplaning and create potential safety issues. The airline says it is considering a dedicated area for travelers to take photos. Call it a selfie station.

"Otherwise you hold up everybody,'' Watterson said.

Exiting from the back of the plane: 'It's a lot quicker' 

With Southwest's lack of assigned seats, passengers in the back of the boarding line usually end up in the back of the plane unless someone saved them a seat or they plop down in an empty middle seat near the front. That makes for a long wait when the plane lands.

When two doors are used for deplaning, the back of the plane suddenly turns into a sweet spot for passengers. 

Sharon Navarro had to sit in the back on her flight to Sacramento because she was running late and missed the A boarding group. (She paid for EarlyBird Check-In.)

She didn't know Southwest offered dual deplaning in Sacramento. When the flight attendant announced passengers could get off at the rear of the plane, she just figured there was something wrong with the front door.

Southwest Airlines occasionally greets passengers getting off the back of the plane at Sacramento International Airport with a cart full of treats to pick from on their way to the terminal.

She loved it.

"It's a lot quicker, and I like being out on the tarmac.''

Sacramento travelers used to the rear exits immediately stand up and look back when their plane lands. 

Houstin Sarrels and his girlfriend, Haylee James, were up and ready for a quick exit when their flight from Long Beach landed last week.

The rear door never opened due to high winds.

"I thought they were going to open the back,'' Sarrels said as he sat back down and waited his turn to get off.

It took nearly 10 minutes.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Southwest Airlines dual boarding: On, off planes faster in California