For 30 years, Southwest Airlines Co. has confounded competitors by offering cheap fares on short flights. Saddled with higher operating costs, major carriers have taken solace in the fact that the no-frills airline doesn't fly cross-country nonstop.
That's about to change. Beginning Sept. 15, Dallas-based Southwest will offer twice-daily nonstop flights between Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where it is the dominant carrier, and Los Angeles International Airport for $99 each way. It will mark the first time the airline has offered regularly scheduled nonstop coast-to-coast service.
For BWI travelers, it will mean one more option for getting to the West Coast and could lead to lower fares if other carriers move to match Southwest's introductory ticket price.
Analysts say the move also could have industrywide repercussions if Southwest decides to offer more long-haul flights, which are among the most profitable routes for major network airlines.
"It's the one thing [Southwest] really didn't do before, and it's something that's going to make the big airlines shudder," said David S. Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a trade group representing passengers.
The added uncertainty comes as the industry is still reeling from record losses after last year's recession and terrorist attacks, analysts said. Southwest is the only carrier to report a profit last year.
"I think it could be trouble for [major airlines] because Southwest has got airplanes continuing to be delivered, and these markets are just hanging open to them," said Morton Beyer, an Arlington, Va.-based aviation consultant. "I think this is just a harbinger of what's to come."
Southwest says there's no need for competitors to panic. The airline has no plans to abandon its strategy of high-frequency, short-haul flights. More than 80 percent of the airline's flights are 750 miles or less.
The airline also announced yesterday that it will offer new flights to Tampa and Orlando, Fla., from both Providence, R.I., and Manchester, N.H.
Southwest has made no secret of its plans to begin taking on longer routes. With other airlines reducing service to cut costs, there is room for Southwest to fill a void left by others, airline officials said. Southwest is the only major carrier that didn't cut its staff or routes after the attacks of Sept. 11.
Los Angeles "is one of the top markets in the country, and we have wanted to do it," said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a spokeswoman for the airline. "It was just a matter of what made the most sense for us."
Southwest flirted with nonstop cross-country service in 1998, when it offered a one-time flight between BWI and Oakland, Calif., on Thanksgiving Day.
The experiment exposed a few flaws. The crew ran out of room for garbage because snacks served on the longer flight came in plastic containers that didn't collapse after use. Today, the airline packs snacks in cardboard boxes, which can easily be compacted when empty.
Southwest has more planes available. In 1998, the airline had to compete with other expanding carriers for delivery of new Boeing 737-700s, a version of the 737 that can be used on longer flights.
That's not a problem today, because most of the airlines, strapped for cash, have deferred deliveries of new planes. Southwest will take delivery of four new planes to serve the route announced yesterday.
Southwest is hoping the nonstop cross-country route will attract more business travelers, who have sharply cut back on travel as a result of last year's recession. A business travel group has criticized the airline industry for keeping fares high despite the drop-off in demand.
"If major carriers don't fix this, they are going to be overshadowed by the low-fare carriers like Southwest and JetBlue," said Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.