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Southwest takes a seat, perhaps with 3000

Monday was a black-pencil day for Southwest Airlines, the only US carrier that has maintained black ink on its bottom line for a quarter-century. The airline, whose ticketless reservation system has long been powered by HP 3000 technology, started an experiment yesterday. It assigned seats for its passengers flying from San Diego to Phoenix.

Southwest is famous for its "cattle call" boarding regimen, which some flyers love and others endure. The airline does this to get its passengers on board faster, an efficiency tactic a lot like relying on HP 3000s. Very different, but it works. Aircraft make no money for an airline on the ground, waiting. Airlines make a lot less money taking reservations with agents and issuing paper tickets. While you can still get a live person to take your reservation these days, the purchase always goes into a system that issues no paper ticket. (Unless you want to pay extra.)

Ticketless travel was a 3000-sparked industry innovation, but now Southwest is experimenting with being like everybody else. A few years back the company announced it would be migrating off its HP 3000s, someday, but to the best of our information those systems are still dealing out your tickets. Now those 3000s might be asked to take on a new cargo, so to speak: assigning seats.

A report on today's NPR Morning Edition described the scene at yesterday's San Diego gate for the Southwest flights. "Southwest has no software to assign seats," the reporter said. "So gate agents had to assign seats by hand. In pencil, with plenty of erasing."

Could the Southwest ticket application, first written by Morris Air in the 1980s, then sold to Southwest along with Morris gates and planes and carried into the 21st Century, gain another feature? It would require a positive customer response from that pencil-laden experiment, to begin with. The application under MPE, however, only needs to add one feature. The rest of the app's functionality is proven.

HP 3000s still drive a lot of airline computing. We are told that Navataire, the company which purchased the OpenSkies systems, still operates about three dozen 3000s, mostly N-Class, to do fare revenue accounting for a number of airlines. Navitaire says little about its use of the 3000s in its IT shop, but those applications are efficient, even if the computer cowboys consider them old ponies. OpenSkies was once owned by HP and the 3000 division, but sold off in 2000 to the company which became Navataire. Less than a year later, HP announced it would pull out of the 3000 market as well.

Southwest is testing the assigned seating for about the same reason that HP improved MPE's networking in the late 1990s. Some people won't come close to a Southwest seat unless it's assigned. IT shops couldn't keep their 3000s running unless they could exchange data over industry networks, using standards like FTP and DNS.

We don't know if the Southwest experiment will send the airline into the same class as its less-efficient, less profitable competition. Integrating seat assignment into Southwest's replacement application had better be easy, however. That's the flexibility promised for the migration away from an efficient, if aging, steed.