Southwest to base 200 pilots at BWI Move signals airline's intention to expand East Coast service

Will be 6th such center

Addition could pump $43.2 million a year into state's economy

January 30, 1998|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

In a strong signal of its intention to expand at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and compete aggressively with US Airways' planned discount operation, Southwest Airlines said yesterday that it is establishing a crew base with 200 pilots at the airport.

The base will become the sixth in the nation for the Dallas-based airline, whose other crew bases are in Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Oakland, Calif., and Chicago, all cities with 100 to 170 Southwest flights a day.

"Southwest will continue to grow on the East Coast and Baltimore is a strategic part of that growth," Kristie Kerr, a spokeswoman for Southwest, said yesterday.

With pilot salaries ranging up to $120,000 a year, the operation here will pump an estimated $43.2 million a year into Maryland's economy, state officials predicted. Currently, pilots who fly out of Baltimore are based at Chicago's Midway Airport.

"They're continuing to make a strong commitment at BWI," said David L. Winstead, Maryland's secretary of transportation. "It's a great sign that they will continue to expand their network at BWI."

Southwest began service at BWI in 1993 with unprecedented low fares that attracted hordes of new travelers to the airport. Since it began, service has grown from eight flights a day to two cities to 50 daily nonstop flights to 37 cities.

In the past four years, BWI's traffic has soared from 8 million a year to 14.1 million, with Southwest handling 2 million passengers.

The airline has forced other carriers to lower ticket prices. Before Southwest began flying to Chicago's Midway in 1993, for instance, the average one-way fare was $121. A year later, the typical one-way fare had plunged to $51.

For Baltimore-area passengers -- and those coming from as far away as Philadelphia -- Southwest's expansion will mean more low fares, even as they are rising at many of the nation's other airports. In addition to Southwest's anticipated growth, US Airways is poised to launch its discount operation, dubbed US 2, at BWI this spring.

While the Arlington, Va.-based airline has revealed no specific plans, top company officials have said that BWI, a relatively uncrowded airport, will be pivotal to an operation that hinges on moving planes and passengers quickly.

It is not clear how many discount flights US Airways will operate at BWI or which markets it will serve. Initially, the airline will dedicate 54 of its planes, or more than 10 percent of its fleet, to US 2.

Kerr said yesterday that Southwest's decision to base 200 of its 2,500 pilots here was unrelated to US Airways' plan. With BWI as its key East Coast airport, many Southwest flights end or begin there. With 11 Boeing 737s now grounded at BWI overnight, it was a strategic decision to station the pilots at the same place, she said.

The new pilot base will be located on Pier E, the former international pier that was vacated in December when the airport's new $130 million international terminal opened.

The addition of 200 pilots, expected to begin work here on April 1, brings to 425 the total number of Southwest employees in the Baltimore area.

In a statement yesterday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said that Southwest's new pilot base at BWI "further establishes the airline's firm footing in the mid-Atlantic and brings 200 well-paying jobs to our state."

Southwest has promised to expand on the East Coast, with speculation focusing heavily on Manchester, N.H., as its next destination. Plans to add a new city were delayed this year, however, after Boeing Co. told the company that because of production difficulties and a surge in demand, it could not deliver on time the new 737-700s that Southwest had ordered.

Historically, Southwest has flown nonstop between cities located relatively close together, usually 500 miles or less. In recent years, however, it has been adding longer flights with one stopover. Baltimore passengers, for instance, can fly from BWI to Oakland, stopping in Kansas City.

Yesterday, the airline announced a sale to promote its coast-to-coast flights, with a $198 round trip from BWI to Oakland, Calif., stopping in Kansas City.

From BWI, Southwest now operates several daily flights to cities such as Providence, R.I., and Chicago.

In the past year, the airline inaugurated service between BWI and Kansas City, Mo., and Jackson, Miss., and added flights to Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Chicago; Louisville, Ky.; Providence; and Nashville, Tenn.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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