CHICAGO - Southwest Airlines Co., the largest low-cost carrier, will add a "significant" number of flights at Chicago's Midway Airport in the first quarter after rival ATA Holdings Inc. filed for bankruptcy this week.
Southwest, the dominant carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, also said it might start assigning passengers to seats for the first time if the company can make the change without adding to the time planes spend at airport gates.
The airline will add to the 19 gates it has at Midway, Chief Executive Officer Gary C. Kelly told reporters in Dallas, where the carrier is based. Southwest can add 45 daily flights with the gates it now has at Midway, more than enough to accommodate its first-quarter growth plans, Kelly said.
Southwest's plans are the latest fallout from Indianapolis-based ATA Airlines' decision Tuesday to operate under bankruptcy protection. ATA, Midway's second-largest carrier, also said it would sell rights to 14 Midway gates to AirTran Holdings Inc.
Midway, closer to downtown Chicago than the larger O'Hare International, is Southwest's fourth-busiest airport in terms of daily flights, with about 145.
"It's an opportunity for us to step up our growth there, and we will have significant growth in Chicago in the first quarter," Kelly said. ATA's bankruptcy "changed everything," and growth at Midway has become the airline's top priority for next year, he said.
Southwest is considering a bid to acquire other ATA assets, Kelly said. The airline would prefer not to buy Boeing Co. 737-800 aircraft from ATA because they would require an additional flight attendant, he said. Southwest plans to add 58 smaller 737s through next year.
Kelly declined to specify how many ATA gates the airline will seek and wouldn't say whether Southwest has held talks about them with the city of Chicago, which owns the rights. "You can be sure there is no desire on our part to stand still in Chicago, and you can be certain we are going to compete aggressively for every customer," said Kelly, who called Chicago "a battleground." "The last thing we're going to do now is to not grow with the market opportunity."
Southwest also might seek to purchase assets owned by US Airways Group Inc. if the carrier goes out of business, Kelly said. US Airways, which is operating under bankruptcy protection, competes with Southwest at Philadelphia, and Kelly said the airline wants to add flights to the city as soon as it can arrange for more gates there.
"We would absolutely, positively respond to that opportunity, somehow, someway," he said of a US Airways liquidation. US Airways is the seventh-largest U.S. airline, just behind Southwest. Southwest would have "ample opportunity" to purchase some of the 69 Boeing 737s flown by US Airways if it stops operations, he said.
The carrier probably won't make a decision on seat assignments for at least a year, President Colleen Barrett said. Southwest long has been known for not assigning seats, which cuts the boarding time. Some travelers dislike open seating.
A study in the past year showed that ticketing-data technology Southwest is developing might increase efficiency enough to consider assigning seats, Barrett said.
The airline tries to limit the time a plane sits at a gate between flights to 20 minutes and won't change the seating policy if the "turn time" would increase, she said.
The Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, contributed to this article.