Southwest’s Schedule Will Start Varying More Each Day of the Week

If you call in to Southwest’s reservations line today, you’ll get a message telling you that if you’re traveling before May 9, press 1. If you’re traveling on or after May 9, press 2. That may seem quirky, but it’s actually a monumental day. It’s the day Southwest has all of its flights operating on its new reservations system. After that day, Southwest will have a lot more flexibility with, among other things, its flight scheduling, and we’re already seeing some of that creep into the future schedules.

Southwest has been running on an incredibly old reservations system for decades. In fact, it evolved out of Braniff’s Cowboy system. For those who don’t know ancient history, Braniff went under in 1982. Of course, the original system isn’t recognizable. Southwest slowly cobbled together bits and pieces to create a barely functional system that severely limited the airline’s ability to do simple things… like running different schedules on each day of the week.

Originally, airlines schedules were far more static than they are now. Southwest used to run one schedule Sunday through Friday and then a separate schedule on Saturday. That’s pretty much all the system could handle until later years when I believe some variation was introduced to Sunday schedules as well.

When Southwest took over AirTran and started flying internationally, it found itself in a lot of markets that were well-suited to what’s called “day-of-week” flying, or flights that only operated on certain days. Thanks to a host of other limitations, Southwest never tried to run its international operations in the old system. It contracted with Amadeus to use its Altea system instead. Altea has much more versatility than the old system, but then again, so does a rock.

Having operated international flights on that reservation system for awhile now, Southwest finally made the decision to migrate its domestic operations over to the same system. This should have happened years and years ago (not necessarily Amadeus, but… anything), yet it kept being pushed off. Now we’re finally nearing the switchover. It shouldn’t be a big issue for travelers. Southwest has already built the systems to interface with Amadeus for international travel, and I don’t expect there to be many hiccups. But it does mean Southwest has a whole suite of new tools it can use to do things that seem routine for most airlines.

I’m sure we’ll get into many of those other benefits down the line, but right now I’m focusing on this ability to vary schedules. Why? Because there’s more coming.

Southwest clearly has an interest in this. I noticed that right before the switchover, Southwest will begin flying New Orleans to Columbus on Sundays. That may not be all that odd since Sunday variations do happen. But it was the additional announcement of New Orleans to Raleigh/Durham on both Fridays and Sundays that I found interesting. I haven’t had a chance to look at a schedule database, but has anyone seen Southwest run a pattern like this domestically before? I can’t remember it.

What really matters is that there is going to be much more opportunity to do this with much greater ease going forward. Hopefully Southwest doesn’t abuse this new-found power and turn into United, where every day of the week, flight times and flight numbers change so there’s no consistency. But this kind of flexibility in scheduling will help Southwest to fly some markets that may not have made sense under the previous system restrictions. I’m looking forward to this… and many other changes.

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