Sat, Jul 17, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Mile-high dating club with Southwest

The US airline's open seating policy allows random strangers to meet and sometimes make a love connection

REUTERS , DALLAS

The loving looks begin outside the gate, jump to the jetbridge and snuggle themselves into coach seats in the Southwest Airlines courtship ritual.

The low-fare US carrier Southwest likes to say it is the airline built on love, and thanks to an open seating policy where customers are free to chose their seats, many a romance has taken off with the purchase of an inexpensive ticket.

Over the years, the Dallas-based airline which calls the city's Love Field its home has received thousands of letters and scores of wedding invitations addressed to top executives from couples who met on one of the airline's flights.

"At times, we feel that we are the love brokers of the sky," said airline spokesman Ed Stewart.

A passenger on Southwest receives a boarding pass based on how early they check in for a flight and the pass will assign them to one of three boarding groups. Passengers board with their group and are free to choose any seat on the plane.

Southwest is the only major US carrier with such a policy and all of its seats are coach.

That policy led to wedding bells for Beth and Derrick Zefo of Nashville, Tennessee. Beth saw Derrick as they were boarding a flight to Chicago, and thought he "was kind of cute."

"He was seated on the plane first and was sitting by the window. There were two empty seats next to him and I decided to ask him if I could sit there," Beth said.

The two shared a turkey sandwich and conversation on an 80-minute flight. They met at the airport in Chicago by chance on their return flight and later set up a date.

Their marriage resulted from a policy that allowed the outgoing Beth to sit next to the more reserved Derrick.

"Even for someone shy, if you sit next to someone who is open, it can make for an enjoyable flight," Derrick said.

MAKING EYES AT THE GATE

Veteran Southwest flight attendant C.J. Deschaine has seen the sparks fly between couples hundreds of times -- especially on flights to Las Vegas.

"One person starts to scope the other out at the gate and devises a strategy to sit nearby," she said. If the seats are too far away, Deschaine said she has been called on numerous times to deliver a drink to a passenger on behalf of a caller.

According to dating expert Kathleen Roldan, a flight on an airplane presents a good chance for singles to meet. Roldan, the director of dating for Dallas-based Match.com, which bills itself as the largest on-line dating Web site in the world, said that busy singles have few chances to meet by chance.

"What we hear most from singles is what they are really lacking in their day-to-day lives is access to other singles," Roldan said. "It has become more difficult to casually bump into someone who you are going to want to date."

She thinks the open seating policy provides the chance for a meeting, but it can be a risky strategy.

"You wouldn't want to put all your eggs in this basket, but it is definitely a great option," she said.

Some advice from dating experts on the airplane dating ritual include trying to make some sort of contact in the terminal -- where small talk comes as easily as asking "isn't it a hassle to travel?"

If there is some connection, then try to pursue it during the flight and if things do not look good in terminal, do not bother a person on the plane.

LOVE BITES

As a part of building a brand image, the airline used to call its in-flight snacks "love bites" and its in-flight drinks "love potions." Its stock ticker symbol is LUV and it calls its monthly company newsletter "Luv Lines."

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