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

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 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.

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