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December 18, 2008

Southwest Comes to the Big Apple

Open Skies

by Barbara S. Peterson

In what has to be the best news for air travelers we've heard in months, Southwest is coming to the Big Apple in 2009. Gary Kelly, CEO of the low-fare maverick, confirmed yesterday during an appearance at New York's Wings Club that the airline will offer flights out of LaGuardia Airport by next June. He hasn't revealed yet what cities the airline will fly to, but those who've followed the quirky carrier's progress for years know that the airline never tiptoes into a market; rather, expect a big splash, lots of flights, and rock-bottom fares. It's been dubbed the "Southwest effect" because when the airline swoops in, the existing airlines are forced to lower their fares to compete--and consumers benefit all around.

But wait: For years, didn't Southwest executives say that New York was the last place they wanted to pitch their tent, given the dismal operating conditions at all three of the city's major airfields? LGA, JFK, and Newark airports are known as the most delayed in the country. Indeed, New York's problems tend to cascade through the system: Last year, its airports were blamed for nearly 70 percent of all the late flights in the country. And Southwest, with its reputation for on-time service and quick airport turnarounds, had prudently avoided the risk of having that record sullied by getting stuck on the takeoff line at LGA.

I had a chance to ask Gary Kelly about this new development when I interviewed him for an article in the December issue of Condé Nast Traveler. He pointed out that Southwest has long outgrown the regional limits of its name, and that it already operates out of major metropolitan depots like Chicago Midway and Philadelphia, which have their own foul weather and air traffic issues. In each case, skeptics said it couldn't be done, but the airline, which doesn't serve food or give assigned seats on its all-coach 737s, plunged in and now flies coast to coast. "We'd like to be in every major market," he said, identifying New York as the most glaring "big hole" in its route map. (With apologies to our friends on Long Island, Southwest's service to Macarthur Airport in Islip doesn't quite register on the radar for New Yorkers.) 

The carrier normally waits to make big moves until it gets a great opportunity; in this case, discount line ATA went under earlier this year, leaving gates open at LGA, which Kelly gladly snapped up. And in March, Southwest plans to start service to Minneapolis, where the merger of Delta and Northwest (which long dominated the Twin Cities) has opened the way for a similar challenge.

Further reading:
* Read Barbara's piece in the December issue of Condé Nast Traveler, "Navigating Air Travel's New Reality"
* Delta becomes the world's biggest airline, thanks to Northwest
* The New Terminal 5 at JFK
* On the Fly: The airline industry

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