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Saturday, Oct 28, 2006
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Love’s new menu: 25 new cities

By TREBOR BANSTETTER
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — After 27 years, North Texas consumers will finally be able to fly from Dallas Love Field to faraway cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles starting Thursday — and at cheap prices, to boot.

Southwest Airlines unveiled its new Love Field schedule Tuesday, which includes flights to 25 new cities at introductory fares as low as $99 each way if bought 14 days in advance. Many of the fares are hundreds of dollars cheaper than prices offered from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

But there’s a catch: None of the flights will be nonstop. Travelers will have to land at intermediate airports like Houston, St. Louis or Kansas City, and most will change planes. And last-minute fares will be more expensive, although none will exceed $319 each way.

“The days of high fares from North Texas are about to come to an end,” Gary Kelly, Southwest’s chief executive, said at a news conference at the airline’s Dallas headquarters Tuesday morning.

The announcement was the culmination of a nearly two-year battle for Kelly, who said in November 2004 that he would begin seeking the Wright Amendment’s repeal.

The amendment is a 1979 federal law that restricts service from Love to Texas and a handful of nearby states. Because Southwest flies from Love and not nearby Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, the airline has not been able to offer its low-fare service to distant cities from North Texas.

The repeal effort was bitterly contested by rival American Airlines, but earlier this year, both carriers agreed to a compromise brokered by the mayors of Fort Worth and Dallas. The deal, which became law Friday, ends the geographic restrictions after eight years and allows immediate through-ticketing as long as passengers stop at an airport within the Wright zone.

It also shrinks Love to 20 gates from 32, and authorizes $200 million in airport improvements, mostly to be paid for by Southwest.

And it will be a financial boon for Southwest, the only large airline that has been consistently profitable since 2001. Analysts say the expanded service from Love could mean as much as $50 million in annual revenue for Southwest.

“I don’t think that’s an unreasonable estimate,” Kelly said. “Actually I’m hoping it’s low.”

Ron Ricks, Southwest’s senior vice president for public affairs, led the fight in Washington. He said Tuesday he told Kelly in 2004 that it would take two to four years to make any substantial change in the amendment.

“I kind of bragged that hey, we got it done in 23 months,” Ricks said. “Gary just looked at me and said, ‘I always thought you were exaggerating that.’ ”

He also joked that Herb Kelleher, the airline’s co-founder and chairman, had already moved on to new work.

“I talked to him Friday and he said ‘Yeah, that’s great, now I’ve got about seven other things for you to work on,’ ” Ricks said. “That’s just Herb.”

The airline is planning an advertising campaign to get the word out about the new cities and fares, although Kelly wouldn’t specify what types of ads are planned. The marketing is expected to kick off Thursday.

He added that some special events at the airport are likely as well.

“This is a big celebration,” he said. “We’re very excited about this, and we think North Texans are excited, too.”

Competitors’ plans

American tried to get the jump on Southwest by selling one-stop itineraries a day earlier. But the airline wasn’t offering big discounts — the fares for connecting flights out of Love will be the same as if you took the one-stop flight from its hub at D/FW Airport, said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American.

Still, most analysts expect American to match Southwest’s fares at Love. The airline will likely charge more for nonstop fares from D/FW.

“As long as the cost margin isn’t out of line with what a customer is willing to pay, in general we find they will pay more for the nonstop itinerary, both business and leisure travelers,” Wagner said. “It’s just a matter of how much more.”

Continental Airlines, which has a small presence at Love, did not announce changes to its schedule or fares.

Nationwide destinations

Southwest’s schedule includes flights to most of its major cities, like Chicago Midway Airport, Las Vegas, Seattle and Orlando, Fla. Flights are also available to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Maui and Honolulu, through a partnership with ATA Airlines.

The Hawaii flights are the only ones that aren’t being introduced with special low fares. Those flights will start at $360 each way, said Kevin Michalenko, Southwest’s director of pricing. Last-minute fares to Hawaii will cost $520 each way, he said.

And passengers on the Hawaii flights will have to stop twice, he said.

Including the ATA cities, Southwest will offer fares to 46 destinations from Love, compared with 18 now.

A few cities won’t have service, like Providence, R.I.; Islip, N.Y.; and Fort Myers, Fla. That’s because the airline couldn’t find a convenient connecting point.

All layovers had to be between 45 and 65 minutes long, said Colleen Barrett, Southwest’s president. And none of the flights has more than one connection or stop, with the exception of the ATA service to Hawaii.

“We felt like we had to maintain our tradition of quality,” she said.

But Kelly hopes to add service to those cities next year, depending on the demand and how well the airline can tweak its schedule.

Some of the cities will have a significant number of flights. Travelers can choose 18 flights a day to Phoenix, for example, 11 daily flights to Orlando and 16 flights to Las Vegas.

On about 20 percent of flights from Love, passengers will be able to stay on the same airplane when it lands at the connecting airport. The rest will have to switch planes.

“We’re hoping to improve that” with an updated schedule in March, Kelly said.

Although it’s more than doubling the number of destinations, Southwest isn’t adding new flights to Love’s schedule. The airline operates 125 flights daily from the airport.

But more could be added next year as Southwest buys more airplanes. It has orders for 35 more Boeing 737 aircraft that will be accepted next year.

Kelly said that the airline has no plans to reduce service to any smaller cities, like Midland or El Paso.

“As long as the demand remains strong, we’ll continue to serve those cities,” he said.

He added that the airline is looking forward to launching nonstop service nationwide, although it will be a long wait.

“In eight years, we’ll be completely unfettered,” he said.

Staff Writer David Wethe contributed to this report.


Trebor Banstetter, 817-390-7064 tbanstetter@star-telegram.com