Southwest’s Long DFW Goodbye and International Plans in Baltimore

There were a couple of completely unrelated pieces of news from Southwest that came out last week, but I decided to throw them both into a single post. First, Southwest announced that it will have a long, drawn out departure from DFW. Second, CEO Gary Kelly talked about Baltimore as an international hub. Let’s look at each of these.

Southwest to Leave DFW on November 21
This may seem like a small issue, but I find it to be truly fascinating. It’s a crazy look inside politics in the Metroplex.

Southwest Eventually Leaving DFW

Most of you probably know that Southwest’s home base is at Dallas/Love Field. When DFW opened back in the 1970s, most airlines moved to that airport, but Southwest opted for Love and there’s been a big fight ever since. It used to be that airlines could only fly from Love to other Texas points and to surrounding states. But that has slowly grown over time with Missouri as the last exemption.

This wasn’t an issue for Southwest when it was a regional player because it didn’t really care about flying beyond those points, but now it does. And over the last several years, it fought a nasty battle to repeal the restriction (called the Wright Amendment). A compromise was reached in 2006 that will see the restriction disappear in 2014 (a full 8 years after the agreement was reached). As part of that, the number of gates will be capped at 20 (something Southwest should love since it now have a virtual monopoly) and a couple other rules go into place.

There were a lot of hurt feelings in this battle, and one of the lingering rules is that for every gate that Southwest or an affiliate operates at DFW, it would have to give up one at Love. That didn’t seem like a problem when Southwest acted like, well, the way it’s always acted. But then it went and bought AirTran. AirTran flies to DFW. So now that Southwest owns AirTran, its affiliate is flying to DFW and there’s a fight about what should happen.

Southwest’s response was a pretty standard one. Tickets were sold by AirTran through November 21 before Southwest took over, so it wants to just keep flying through November 21 to avoid inconveniencing passengers. I don’t see a problem with that, though it seems like a weak excuse. I mean, how many people do you think have already bought tickets into DFW on AirTran in November, or even October? Not many. November 21 is the Monday before Thanksgiving, so you could have a few stragglers who bought an early flight out to DFW, but nobody could have bought a return from Thanksgiving. Even in that case, Southwest could put people into Love Field and even provide ground transportation if it wanted. But it’s not.

And I don’t think that’s bad, but you would think it was the worst thing to ever happened listening to some of the locals. Some have suggested that AirTran’s two gates at DFW should make Southwest surrender two at Love. Ft Worth’s mayor had previously said that Southwest should pull out far sooner. You would think that the mayor would like having those low cost flights at nearby DFW for as long as possible, but no. Apparently, he’d rather hold a grudge.

In the end, I imagine that the November 21 date will hold but this whole argument is just downright stupid, isn’t it? Local politics. Gotta love absolutely hate it.

Southwest Sees BWI as an International Gateway
Southwest made more positive news this week up in Baltimore when CEO Gary Kelly started talking about how Baltimore could be a great European gateway for the airline . . . someday. Something tells me that Gary really just got overly excited about the AirTran merger, but I fully expect that we’ll see Southwest grow internationally from Baltimore eventually.

Technically, Baltimore is already an international gateway for Southwest now that it owns AirTran. AirTran flies to Bermuda, Nassau, Cancun, and Montego Bay from the airport today, and Southwest has no plans to drop that. (How and when that can be integrated with the rest of the Southwest network is whole different clusterf*&k.) But Europe? That’s going to have to wait for a long time. There’s just too much on Southwest’s plate right now.

I, however, do bet that it’ll happen. BWI has long had European dreams and most of them have faded. Icelandair used to fly to Baltimore (and made its US-base nearby) but it pulled out years ago and now flies to Dulles instead. British Airways still maintains its single daily flight to London but only after the airport agreed to keep subsidies flowing to the airline. That’s the only flight left from Baltimore to Europe.

That’s exactly the kind of situation that Southwest could make work. People in Washington already know to go to Baltimore for cheap flights (or at least, that’s how they’ve been trained since Southwest entered BWI back in the 1990s). It’s not much of a stretch for people to also think about Baltimore as the place to go for cheap European flights.

The bigger issue is whether or not Southwest could find a way to profitably serve Europe when time and time again, long haul low cost efforts have failed. If it happens, you can bet Baltimore will be in the mix.

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