BWI rival to get busier

Southwest planes land at Philadelphia May 9

Md. airport readies new terminal

Pa. move called defensive

discount airlines growing

December 14, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA — Concourse E at Philadelphia International Airport is now a partially abandoned set of gates in a gray, slightly aging terminal near the end of the complex. But in coming months, its impact will ripple to Baltimore and beyond.

That's because Southwest Airlines will land there next year.

The low-fare carrier based in Dallas, whose Texas-sized impact on air travel has been dubbed "the Southwest effect," caused a stir two months ago when it announced its entry into Philadelphia. It's among the first major markets for the carrier, which is better known for concentrating on midsize airports that enable it to reduce expenses and fares.

The move also stirred concern 90 miles to the south at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which draws about 15 percent of its fliers from Pennsylvania partly because of its Southwest presence.

"It's a good thing for Philly," said David S. Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington-based passenger advocate. "The impact will be wide. It may even have an impact on" Baltimore.

"They'll start with not that many flights, add some more, slowly build and become a behemoth," he said. "People will drive a long way for Southwest."

Southwest announced Thursday that it will begin flying May 9 from Philadelphia to Chicago's Midway International Airport; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Providence, R.I.; and Orlando and Tampa Bay, Fla., with fares to be announced later.

A spokeswoman said the company does not want to steal business from Baltimore, where it also serves close to half the airport's passengers with more than 160 flights a day.

BWI reported 1.53 million passengers in September, the latest month for which figures are available, and nearly 700,000 of them flew Southwest. That was six times as many as BWI's next biggest carrier, AirTran.

BWI is also building a new terminal for Southwest, scheduled to open in 2005, meaning even more flights are coming.

Taylor Edge, who flies regularly from Huntsville, Ala., to Philadelphia for security software provider Intergraph Public Safety Inc., said Southwest will change many of his fellow employees' flying habits.

"I was just talking to a co-worker on the way to the airport about Southwest," he said while waiting to catch a flight at the Philadelphia airport this month. "The US Airways flight from Boston to Philly is very expensive. So he normally drives from Boston to Providence and flies Southwest to Baltimore and then drives to Philly. He could save $700 to $800. He won't have to do that anymore.

"Southwest will be a very big plus," he said. "Very big."

Indeed, its influence has been conspicuous most of the places it lands. A year after it began service from Baltimore to Providence in 1996, prices on all airlines flying that route dropped by three-quarters and eight times as many passengers traveled between the two cities.

In Providence, at T.F. Green Airport, traffic jumped by 88 percent in Southwest's first year flying from there in 1996. And the airport at Albany, N.Y., hit a passenger record after the airline started service in 2000.

Not all Southwest's moves have turned to gold.

The airline has retreated or retrenched in several markets, including San Francisco and St. Louis. But more often it has targeted a midsize market that it considers overpriced and uncongested, undercut competitors' fares and grown as rapidly as the airport could stand, observers say.

Its move to Philadelphia is partly defensive, to dissuade other discount carriers from going there, some observers said. Southwest will use gates formerly reserved for TWA, which folded into American Airlines after its bankruptcy a decade ago.

The airline may have seen an atypical opening in Philadelphia because the airport has not recovered as well from the downturn in air travel that trailed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Travelers there have also complained about delays at security gates and on Interstate 95 leading to the facility.

"It is kind of out of our norm because it's a major hub for another carrier and we generally prefer smaller airports," acknowledged Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a spokeswoman for Southwest. "But it has low traffic for its size and that is evidence that it is overpriced and under-served. And gates are available there."

Other low-fare carriers, including AirTran and ATA Airlines, have a limited presence in Philly. JetBlue Airways, Frontier Airlines and the startup Virgin USA reportedly were considering flying there.

Several new low-cost airlines are also in the hunt for space. Among them are Delta Air Lines' Song, United Airlines' Ted and Atlantic Coast Airlines' Independence Air, which recently announced that it would launch at Washington Dulles International Airport next year with 325 daily flights. That would make it the largest low-fare carrier hub in the Baltimore-Washington region, surpassing Southwest.

Southwest's move into Philadelphia could weigh most heavily on US Airways, which has a hub in Philadelphia and also flies from BWI.

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