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Southwest Advances into South Carolina

Southwest is on the march through the South; however, instead of burning down Atlanta like others have done, the airline will simply use the old school backdoor approach that made it famous. In this case, that means tackling South Carolina.

Greenville Spartanburg Distances

The airline will go into Charleston, but the one that’s more interesting to me is Greenville/Spartanburg. (GSP). Both cities are expected to launch in 2011 and we know nothing else except that they won’t need any subsidies. (It was a pretty odd announcement.)

Why is GSP interesting? Geography.

Think about Atlanta. Right now, the airline “serves” Atlanta by flying into Birmingham, a couple hours west of town. GSP is about the same distance from Atlanta as Birmingham but on the northeast side instead.

It’s not just Atlanta, however. Southwest will also be looking to bracket Charlotte with this move. GSP is about an hour southwest of Charlotte while the airline already serves Raleigh/Durham, a couple hours east of Charlotte.

With GSP, Southwest kills two birds with one stone, theoretically. It’s an old-school Southwest attack on the fringes, but that’s uncharacteristic of the airline’s recent moves into big airports like Boston or LaGuardia. That makes me think there’s more to this.

If this is indeed the strategy, it seems like an odd one. US Airways is undoubtedly thrilled that Southwest isn’t coming into Charlotte right now, and they will certainly lose some business to Southwest in lower fare markets, but the high dollar business isn’t going over there. Also, AirTran and JetBlue already provide some limited low fare service in Charlotte itself.

As for Atlanta, well, that’s a non-starter. There is plenty of low fare competition in Atlanta these days, so I can’t imagine people driving to Greenville just to catch a flight. It’s not worth it anymore.

That sort of reality makes me wonder if there’s something in Greenville that they are seeing to make it attractive on its own. The Combined Statistical Area (which includes much of northern South Carolina) is around 1.2 million people so that’s not small. It is, however, quite spread out.

Companies like Michelin, 3M, Lockheed Martin, and Honeywell have operations around town. BMW has its US manufacturing facility in Spartanburg. Maybe they’re lining up corporate clients and looking to build a strong base in a historically high fare area.

At least, I really hope that’s the case, because the old Southwest strategy of serving out of the way airports doesn’t lend itself well to courting the business traveler anymore, as Southwest wants to do.

[Map via GCMap.com]

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