It took a while, but BWI finally lured Southwest to Baltimore When USAir pulled back, the sky became clear

September 14, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Times were flush for airlines in 1987. Carriers, like America West, were turning their attention to the East Coast when Charlie Kurth, an aviation consultant to BWI, advised the airport to begin wooing Southwest.

"He said, 'Southwest will be coming to the East Coast and we ought to be getting our oar in the water now,' " recalled Jay Hierholzer, BWI's associate administrator for marketing and development.

Within the year, Hierholzer and Kurth would visit Southwest's Dallas headquarters to meet with Pete McGlade, the carrier's guru of scheduling.

"It was like, 'Hi, we're the other airport in Washington,' " Hierholzer said.

It was a pitch that appealed to the underdog airline that had long operated out of uncongested, "also ran" airports like Houston's Hobby, Chicago's Midway and Dallas' Love Field.

"I remember it as a good first meeting, but there was no B.S. factor involved," said Hierholzer. "He (McGlade) was very candid about where they were headed with the airline, outlining revenue projections for this year and next. He said he was not about to get into dumb flying."

Among other things, McGlade was worried about competition from USAir -- now called USAirways -- and Eastern Airlines which practically owned the East Coast. Trains, he also knew, moved thousands of business travelers daily.

While Hierholzer and Kurth made the BWI case -- modest landing fees, passenger friendly space, fourth largest market in U.S. with easy access to Washington -- Southwest officials, notoriously methodical about expansion, gave little encouragement.

"They said we'd have to be patient," Hierholzer recalled. "We knew we were on their dance card but didn't know how seriously." So BWI officials continued to send Southwest data about its traffic volume, Amtrak's business in the Northeast corridor and the airport's plans for expansion.

Yet up and down the East Coast, other airport officials mindful of the "Southwest effect" were aggressively doing the same. Southwest later revealed that Baltimore had been one of 90 cities seeking its service that year.

In summer 1988, however, USAir announced its plans to acquire Piedmont. It was clear that USAir would never play as pivotal a role as Piedmont at BWI.

By August 1989, USAir jet flights peaked at 189 a day -- dwindling to a low of 76 this year. BWI became a ghost town, its stepchild image in the Washington area only reinforced.

"We basically said to USAir, 'If you're not going to give us service, we're gonna go to the other airlines,' " Hierholzer said. Another visit to Dallas followed, though it was once again greeted by caution from the methodical airline. "What was always right in front of them is: What will this do to our costs?' " Hierholzer said. "It was stamped right on their head."

At same time, Southwest was closely eyeing USAir's pullback in Baltimore. For years, analysts had insisted that the Arlington, Va.-based carrier had too many hubs clustered too close together. "We said, 'Finally I guess they're going to do what everybody has said they ought to do there,' " Herb Kelleher, the airline's CEO, recalled in a recent interview. "Frankly, one of the reasons we were attracted to BWI was the fact that USAir was reducing service there."

Indeed, the carrier had consistently avoided invading other airlines' strongholds. "A Southwest attack on [USAir's hub] in Pittsburgh," Kelleher said, would be "kind of like taking on the German Wehrmacht with a World War I Polish tank."

In the spring of 1989, Bob Montgomery, Southwest's director of properties, made a quiet visit to BWI. In a July 5, 1989, letter to Kelleher, BWI administrator Theodore E. Mathison wrote: "We understand . . . that Southwest is seriously considering BWI as a potential East Coast 'anchor' airport. We are delighted with this prospect."

But, with a serious economic recession intervening and Southwest still lacking the fleet to expand east, it would be several more years of visits and letters back and forth before the carrier committed to BWI.

On Feb. 14, 1993, Hierholzer and BWI's deputy director, Nicholas Schaus, went back to Dallas for a meeting with the airline's "heavy hitters."

"They grilled us about our facilities," Hierholzer said. "They were going so far out in the future with their questions. We knew from that meeting that they were dead serious and we were going to be pivotal to whatever they were doing on the East Coast."

In the coming months, in true Southwest style, the expansion plans were be kept top secret. By June, word of the airline's long-awaited first East Coast service leaked in the Dallas press. Nevertheless, a formal announcement by Kelleher at BWI in July that Southwest would begin service on Sept. 15, with $19 and $39 introductory fares to Cleveland and Chicago, respectively, brought 100 reporters from around the country.

Weeks before its first flight, Southwest had booked 89,000 people and had forced USAir to lower fares to money-losing levels. In an interview, US Air's CEO Seth E. Schofield described Southwest as a "monster" that had suddenly emerged while nobody was watching.

And, on the side, Kelleher was telling folks: "You're going to have more passengers at BWI than you ever dreamed."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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