With advance bookings to Cleveland and Chicago soaring, Southwest Airlines says it will likely add flights here, but it has no plans to fly from Baltimore to East Coast cities, including those in the popular Florida market.
Southwest Chairman Herbert D. Kelleher said yesterday that bookings from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to the two Midwest cities have reached 89,000 through early February, even though Southwest won't begin service here until Sept. 15.
Last year, passenger traffic between BWI and Cleveland and Chicago totaled about 300,000.
"The first thing Baltimore will need is more flights to Chicago and Cleveland," Mr. Kelleher said in a news briefing here prior to a luncheon given by Southwest for Maryland businessmen and politicians at the Harbor Court Hotel.
But Mr. Kelleher discounted speculation that the Dallas-based discount carrier will compete with USAir or other airlines along the East Coast.
"This is not a beachhead preparatory to a North-South invasion of USAir territory," he said. "We're basically an East-West carrier." Besides more Chicago and Cleveland flights, Southwest may add flights to St. Louis sometime next year, he said.
That expansion strategy reflects Southwest's deliberative pace of serving established routes before adding others and its determination to avoid congested airports, like LaGuardia and National, where slots are restricted.
But the airline's plans undoubtedly will leave consumers disappointed that Southwest will not drive down fares from Baltimore to other cities, much the way it already has to Chicago and Cleveland.
Since Southwest announced plans in July to inaugurate service at BWI, the unrestricted one-way fare to Cleveland, for instance, has dropped from $349 to $49, with both Continental Airlines and USAir lowering their fares. Continental's new fares are already in place, and USAir's are due to take effect next week.
Fare wars also have resulted in lower restricted fares, including Southwest's $19 ticket to Cleveland and $39 fare to Chicago. Those fares, which have only limited seating available, will expire in February.
But Southwest's standard unrestricted one-way fare of $89 to Chicago and $49 to Cleveland -- which are good any time and for all seats -- will remain in effect on its five daily non-stop flights to Cleveland and three to Chicago.
The low fares are expected to draw passengers to other airlines at BWI as well. Yesterday, USAir said its limited seating, weekend fare of $24.50 to Cleveland and $44.50 to Chicago is sold out for September.
Southwest also began service at San Jose, Calif., and Louisville, Ky. this year. During its first month at Louisville, the number of passengers traveling to and from Chicago jumped from 8,000 to 23,000, Mr. Kelleher said.
Southwest is expected to draw passengers to BWI from as far away as Philadelphia and give the underused BWI a significant ** boost in its competition with Washington DullesInternational and National airports outside Washington.
Continental said advance bookings on its three daily flights from BWI to Cleveland and Chicago from September through February are up more than 200 percent.
Last month, the state of Maryland, which operates BWI, spent $120,000 on newspaper ads, touting both Southwest's arrival and BWI's coup in its five-year effort to attract the airline.
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.