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Southwest Airlines launches a new, faster jet bridge

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 Reporter

Dallas, TX – MBIENCE: jet bridge]

Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: This is a prototype: only one of two automated jetways in the world that links customers to the plane's front door, and also to the plane's back door.

John Chaussee, Southwest Airlines Operations Security Director: It's an audible alarm, when the entire bridge is in motion to let everybody know down here on the ramp that the bridge is in motion and be mindful of it.

Zeeble: John Chaussee is Southwest Airlines' Operations Security Director. He's part of a team in charge of watching this six-month experiment.

Chaussee: It appears we've got a successful dock going here. Once the cabin mates with the aircraft door, the safety sensors tell it to stop, it stops, and the customers are able to exit through the back door rapidly, go through the tunnel and be on their way.

Zeeble: That's the goal. Over nearly 30 years in business, Southwest Airlines has built its low- fare reputation, in part on the ten-minute turnaround. The Boeing 737 lands, passengers get off, the cabin's cleaned, new passengers board, and the jet takes off. Ten minutes. But in the past few years, as the company's dramatically grown, that's risen to 20.

Chaussee: Five minutes per turn would be a good thing. We think the bridge could perform a little better than that, but if we could save five minutes per turn, we'd be very happy.

Michael J. Boyd, The Boyd Group, aviation consultant: Saving five minutes here and five minutes there for an airline the size of Southwest could be millions of dollars to the bottom line.

Zeeble: Aviation consultant Michael Boyd says that's because Southwest Airlines makes money when its planes are in the air. This could speed the process. Even if the high tech jet bridge costs about half a million dollars each, according to Boyd, it would be worth it

Boyd: I don't care how fast they turn the airplane, the biggest benefit of it is they're letting passengers get off that metal tube faster. And to me, that's a human thing to do.

Zeeble: Passengers seem to like it.

Passenger #1 on board Southwest's flight from Dallas to Austin: [I] never boarded a plane in the rear before - makes everything more efficient.

Passenger #2: Certainly this is an improvement. I like it.

Zeeble: Southwest's rear-door bridge is only in place at Dallas's Love Field Gate 6 and in Austin. Southwest and even United Airlines load and unload passengers through front and back jet doors in California, but with ground-level stairways. Still, there remain a few issues with the new jetway that could interfere with the quick-turn goal. For example, even if passengers get on and off the plane faster, loading and unloading baggage, mail, and fuel still take the same amount of time. Then there's the issue of safety. Southwest's John Chaussee says the rear bridge rises up and over the jet's wing to reach the back door.

Chaussee: If you contact the aircraft you immediately take the aircraft out of service and have to have it inspected. So you lose the use of the aircraft. If you ever damage an aircraft, then it's a very expensive process to repair an aircraft.

Zeeble: Again, aviation consultant Michael Boyd.

Boyd: A jetway designed to go over a the wing of an airplane to a rear door is something that should be only operated by someone awake, sober and very well trained.

Zeeble: Boyd is not worried about Southwest handling its rear-door jet bridge. But whether it stays, or more appear at additional gates and airports, remains the question. Southwest will study the effects of the new device over the next five months to see if it's doing what the company wants, and if it's worth the expense. If it stays, it could change the way Southwest and possibly others do business. Perhaps the same way its ticketless travel spread through the industry, its low-fare no-frills policies prompted copycats, or the way it now books more customers on-line than its competitors. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.