Southwest Stretching Its Wings At Bwi

December 17, 2009|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,

Southwest Airlines is significantly expanding its presence at BWI Airport - taking advantage of a region whose travel market remains healthy despite the recession, analysts said.

The expansion could also be a defensive tactic by the airline as it faces increased competition from JetBlue Airways and AirTran Airways, which have increased flights at BWI in recent months.

Southwest, the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, will offer 181 nonstop daily flights beginning May 9, up from its current 157. That will be the largest number of flights it has offered at BWI since it started service there with 10 flights on Sept. 15, 1993.

Most of the added flights will be to current stops, but the airline will also soon fly from BWI to Panama City, Fla.

"I think the Baltimore buildup is a function of Southwest consolidating its power and really trying to dominate a market," said Vaughn Cordle, chief analyst at Airline Forecasts, a research firm in Washington. "They've got to defend against competitors like JetBlue and AirTran and other carriers that in the aggregate are nibbling at their margins."

Consumers could benefit from the added flights, analysts said.

"Fares are already pretty low, relative to the region and the nation," said Hunter Keay, vice president and airline analyst at Stifel Nicolaus Capital Markets in Baltimore. "Consumers are already getting a pretty good fare by flying out of BWI, and more flights, especially with introductory service, are only going to help the customer."

The new flights come as competition among BWI's low-cost carriers has increased during the past few months.

The recession has caused passengers to pull back on travel and look for the cheapest fares. BWI has benefited, showing traffic increases in six of the past seven months as carriers have started price wars to lure travelers. October traffic was up 8.3 percent over last year.

Meanwhile, nearby competitors Reagan National and Dulles International have reported declines in air traffic.

JetBlue started flying from BWI for the first time this year with service to Boston and introductory fares as low as $9.99.

AirTran has added several flights - to cities such as Indianapolis and New Orleans - and employees as it works to make BWI a major stop in the Mid-Atlantic region. It starts service to the Bahamas on Thursday, and will celebrate with a steel drum band and continental breakfast for passengers.

Southwest, which has 53 percent of the flights at BWI, said Wednesday that it did not make the schedule changes because of the competition.

"JetBlue and AirTran are our competition, but our focus is to offer the best service and routes possible," said Reggie Barnes, the airline's station manager at BWI.

Barnes said the increased routes should help Southwest compete as it focuses on its strongest markets. "Every little bit helps in this day and time," Barnes said.

A spokeswoman for AirTran said the airline welcomes the competition.

"We have invested a lot in the Baltimore market and we continue to do so," said Cynthia Tinsley-Douglas. "It just appears as if [Southwest is] following our lead. We really feel like this is an important market, and it has been pivotal to our growth."

Southwest is adding service at BWI after it cut capacity overall because of the general decline in travel and added fees to make up revenue. For instance, it added a $10 fee for a good spot in the boarding line. But it has resisted charging for baggage even as many other airlines added those fees.

Nationwide, Southwest's new schedule will add 65 round-trip flights and cut 24 round-trip flights, starting in May. The schedule reflects seasonal travel patterns; Southwest believes that demand will increase during the summer.

Southwest has expanded steadily since opening at BWI. The airport opened a $264 million, 26-gate terminal dedicated solely to the airline in 2005. The airline planned to use the gates to expand capacity, but last year it asked the state to cut the number of gates to save money. It now operates from about 20 gates, while the number of average flights has dropped slightly.

Analysts said the expansion is a testament to the importance of the Baltimore market. The airport was one of two that Southwest used to launch service to LaGuardia Airport in New York.

"Southwest certainly has dominated in market share position at one of the most profitable airports in this country. They're going to do what they can to protect that," Keay said.

BWI officials hope Southwest's increased flights will cement the airport's reputation for lower prices. BWI is known as a low-cost airport mainly because of Southwest's large presence.

"BWI remains a very important market," said airport spokesman Jonathan Dean. "This market has a long-standing reputation as a leading airport for low fares and excellence."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.