Southwest lures travelers to skies No-frills carrier a boost to airports

July 09, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

When Southwest Airlines rolled its first Boeing 737 into the Cleveland airport two years ago, airline traffic was stagnant while people-movers like Greyhound Bus were booming.

Today, airport traffic there is up nearly 1 million passengers, with travelers coming from as far away as Pittsburgh, while Greyhound has trimmed its once-busy schedule to such highly traveled destinations as Chicago.

Cleveland, like other cities where Southwest flies, thanks the no-frills carrier from Texas for the turnaround. "It's been a major, major benefit to us," said John Osmond, director of marketing at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

The Dallas-based airline is expected to begin service at Baltimore-Washington International Airport later this year. "I would expect BWI to see similar increases in traffic because of Southwest," Mr. Osmond said.

Typically, Southwest Airlines has driven down prices and lured passengers out of cars, trains and buses with its bargain fares. In Cleveland, for instance, Southwest offers a $59 one-way fare to Chicago, compared to a $36 one-way ticket on Greyhound for a bus ride that takes seven hours.

"We've created a totally new market for people who could never afford to fly," said Ginger Hardage, a spokeswoman for Southwest.

As in Cleveland, Southwest is expected to draw passengers to BWI from far away and give the airport a much-needed boost in its competition with Washington Dulles International and National airports outside Washington.

"It will stimulate an avalanche of demand. With two-thirds of the population in the East and fares currently way too high, there's a real opportunity for BWI," said Richard Danforth, a spokesman for ATX Airlines, a Houston-based airline headed by Frank Lorenzo, which hopes to begin similar service at BWI this year.

While some analysts say Southwest could hurt ATX, Mr. Danforth insists that there's room for several discount carriers at BWI if ATX gains regulators' approval. ATX would fly to Boston and Atlanta, he said.

Southwest plans to begin service to Cleveland and Chicago, according to a report by the Dallas Morning News.

Neither Southwest nor BWI officials would confirm those plans yesterday.

"There are innumerable markets out of Baltimore that are ripe for a low-cost operator," said Mr. Danforth. "Southwest could educate the public to the fact there are alternatives to high-price, user-unfriendly airlines."

Southwest, the seventh-largest carrier in the United States, is a low-cost operation, but its service record has been impressive. In 1992, Southwest was the first and only major airline to capture the U.S. Department of Transportation's "Triple Crown" based on best on-time performance, best baggage handling and fewest customer complaints.

Its policy of not reserving seats often sets off a scramble at boarding time, but it means that flights typically land and take off within 15 minutes of their scheduled times.

Southwest operates 1,400 flights a day to cities within 400 miles of its departures. It was the only major carrier to report a profit in the past three years.

Unlike other major carriers, which have lost billions of dollars since 1989, it does not operate an expensive hub-and-spoke system. It flies only 737s, minimizing both maintenance costs and training for pilots and mechanics alike.

In addition, it does not transfer passengers' baggage to a connecting flight on another airline or serve meals on short flights.

USAir, which serves 57 percent of passengers at BWI, said yesterday it would compete with Southwest through fares and scheduling and would not reduce service. "We welcome the competition," said Andrea Butler, a spokeswoman for Arlington, Va.-based USAir.

Even in cities where the airline has just begun operating, its impact has been quickly felt.

In Louisville, Ky., traffic in June was up 10 percent over last year, when fare wars temporarily inflated the passenger volume, according to Rande Swann, spokesman for Louisville's Standiford Field.

"They've had a tremendous effect here already," she said. As a result of Southwest's presence, the airport has lured traffic away from its main competitor in Cincinnati where a Delta Air Lines hub is located.

In San Jose, Calif., Southwest has been operating at 90 percent capacity on the 11 daily flights it began June 1, according to Marily Mora, a spokesman for San Jose International Airport. That compares with 65 percent for most airlines. Southwest plans to double its daily flights by late summer, she said.

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