Schedule Planning Department members are used to being asked questions. Usually, it's "What's the next new city?" or "When are we going to add nonstop service from X to Y?" Of course, we can't give direct answers, as we have to protect the confidentiality of our growth plans. In fact, we've learned to tap dance our way around those types of questions better than the cast of 42nd Street. However, one question we do get asked repeatedly is why Southwest doesn't allow Customers to make reservations further in advance. I can easily (and happily) de-mystify that one! It really boils down to one, very simple reason: we don't like to confirm a reservation to a Customer, and then have to change their schedule.
As all of us know, the farther you look out into the future, the harder it is to make accurate predictions. TV Weathermen have trouble telling us what it's going to be like outside tomorrow much less ten or eleven months from now. Because the airline industry is as chaotic as the weather and in a constant state of flux, we can only predict with a high degree of certainty what our Corporate, and our Customers', schedule needs will be up to roughly six months in advance. Therefore, we publish our schedule and allow bookings only up to about 180 days in advance--six months of inventory, if you will. After we publish, we let the clock tick down, day by day, until we have about 120 days worth of inventory left to sell, at which point we publish another "block" of schedules and push the inventory back up to about 180 days. On rare occasion (and we're in one now) the inventory can drop as low as 90 days, and on even rarer occasions we'll have more than 180 days available--but the general goal is to keep between 120 to 180 days of inventory for sale. Outside of that six-month timeframe, we're free to make whatever schedule changes we need to in order to remain competitive, maintain operational excellence, and give our Customers the Freedom to Fly all over America.
If we were to allow bookings as much as a year in advance--in effect, before our plans were solid--we would have to make changes to many, if not most, of those longrange reservations. Nobody likes that outcome. For one thing, it's expensive to spend the time and resources to notify Customers whose itineraries have changed. Second, and worse yet, depending on what we changed in the schedule, we couldn't always rebook changed reservations onto replacement itineraries at similar times. Not that we haven't thought about this issue, many times, at great length. We've repeatedly examined the benefit of extending the booking "window," and each time we've found that in general, very, very few Customers would take advantage of booking flights ten or eleven months from today. So by allowing bookings further in advance than we now do, we'd be setting up a potentially very disruptive chain of events that really would not provide a significant benefit for either our Customers or our Company.
We think our existing policy strikes a great balance between offering Customers the ability to confirm their travels far enough ahead of time to suit most of their needs, and allowing Southwest to keep our costs low and our flexibility high to respond to changes in the marketplace. So remember the "120/180 rule" for future bookings on Southwest. We will usually make up to 180 days of inventory available for sale, then allow that booking window to tick down to 120 days-then "recharge" the booking window by putting another 60 days or so of salable inventory out there, taking the total days available back up to around 180. But if you keep this general rule in mind, it'll provide a good yardstick to see where Southwest stands in with respect to the booking window.
Hopefully this will help "de-mystify" planning future travel on Southwest. Keep the questions, and the comments, coming! And feel free to ask me or anyone in the Schedule Planning Department what the next new markets are going to be. We can't tell you....but we do a mean soft-shoe.