Southwest Heads North to Minneapolis

I know I’m a little late on this one, but I had to say something. In case you haven’t heard, last week Southwest announced it would finally be going into Minneapolis/St Paul. This is one of those Southwest destinations that had been predicted for years and years, but it finally came to fruition just in time for the Delta/Northwest merger to happen. I predict this is going to be great for the airline and, more importantly, for those who live in the Twin Cities.

Southwest has long either avoided or failed to grow in Northwest hubs. Memphis and Minneapolis have always been off limits whereas Detroit has never been a very strong station for the airline. (They still only serve 6 cities from there.) So why are they finally giving MSP a shot? Well, there are probably a few reasons.

One, it just makes sense. Southwest basically doesn’t serve the way upper Midwest. The closest cities they serve to MSP? Chicago and Omaha are both around 300 miles away. MSP serves the largest population in the far north and it has always lacked low cost service.

Sure, there’s Sun Country, but that airline appears to be in serious trouble with its Chapter 11 filing. AirTran has served MSP for awhile, but it’s back to only serving Atlanta and Orlando after trying to branch out elsewhere. In fact, one of its abandoned routes, MSP to Chicago/Midway, is going to be Southwest’s first. That route used to have tremendous low fare competition from ATA and AirTran, but now it only has six flights a day from Northwest. (Yes, Northwest, United, and American all serve Minneapolis from O’Hare as well.)

So from that perspective, it’s a place waiting for a low fare airline to make some noise. And the facility is perfect. Take a look at this Google Maps overview of MSP.

MSP Overview

The red outline is the main Lindbergh terminal where most airlines fly. But you can also see the orange line with a separate roadway to the southwest of the main terminal. That’s the low cost Humphrey terminal and it’s basically got Southwest’s name written all over it. There are currently 10 empty gates, and if Sun Country goes under, there will be even more than that.

So how is it that Southwest waited so long? Well they always say that there are plenty of places they want to go, and MSP never reached the top of that list before. Something tells me that part of the evaluation process was a consideration of how vicious Northwest can be in competing with anyone who tries to break up the fortress hub. I mean, this is the airline that went absolutely crazy fighting against little Reno Air for starting Reno to Minneapolis flights. This is a far bigger threat, so it theoretically could result in the end of days.

Maybe Southwest decided that with Delta being the surviving entity and it being preoccupied with the merger, it would be a good time to go in? Southwest will never admit it, but that seems quite plausible to me.

The only surprising thing about this announcement? The airline will only start with flights to Chicago in March 2009. Who wants to take bets that it ends up being more places before flights actually start? I’d expect to see maybe BWI, PHX, MCO. . . . You know, the usual suspects and more. This has the potential to be a big operation for Southwest, and residents of the Twin Cities should be overjoyed.

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