Southwest Heads North to Minneapolis

Schedule Changes, Southwest

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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12 comments on “Southwest Heads North to Minneapolis

  1. Your last paragraph covered what is my biggest curiosity about the announcement. Any service at all in MSP for WN is a great thing, MDW is direct from many points East and West so getting to MSP with one stop shouldn’t be too difficult.

    However, like you I believe they will be adding routes swiftly if they get their wish.

    I have had my fingers crossed for this for quite awhile. As a former Iowan I would LOVE to see DSM or CID get WN service, though I certainly will not hold my breath on that. MSP makes a nice option for northern Iowans who previously would look to MCI, MDW, or OMA to get in on the WN savings.

  2. Hey Cranky–

    I agree in general with your posts, but I actually think the CHI-MSP marketplace not having LCC presence is the real driver here. (Yes, taking advantage of the NW-DL merger’s likelihood to soften NW’s normal hardball response is true as well). I seem to remember reading some WN guy talking about MSP in the past two years or so — and he said something like “If you look at a map, and our belief in starting in markets with a sizeable set of frequencies, the most natural way for us to serve MSP is from MDW, and the Chi-MSP market is *way* overserved at the moment.” This being back when airtran and/or airtran were still up there.

    As for what the rest of what their route network from MSP would likely look like, your guesses are probably on target. I would guess BWI a little later than earlier, but a quick look at the sun country route map should give some ideas.

  3. As a Minneapolitan who travels frequently, I’m simply beside myself with excitement. Sun Country is incredible when it comes to service and prices, but their business associations recently with the downed exec Petters makes everyone a bit skittish to fly with them.

    Humphrey terminal is actually fully rebuilt and is clean, empty, and easy to get through. The terminal has connection to Lindburgh on a free light-rail system that also connects the Mall of America and downtown Minneapolis (and soon, other locations). When the Humphrey terminal was rebuilt (funded by the smaller airlines that fly there), Northwest tried to bully their way in there without paying a dime. The Lindburgh terminal is okay, but it is run down and falling apart compared to the gorgeous, clean Humphrey terminal. Also something kind of different – IcelandAir flies into MSP – Humphrey.

    Northwest has dominated the market in MSP for far too long, forcing residents here to deal with sometimes substandard domestic service (int’l service has always been decent for me), and serious prices for flights. How does a direct flight to Boston cost three hundred dollars more than it does than from San Francisco/Oakland/Portland/Denver/Vegas? They have something crazy like 80+% market share, which pushes out the competition.

    Everyone here has been begging for Southwest to come up – great, streamlined, efficent terminal (think difference between London Gatwick and City), people sick of paying overinflated prices, and willing to give a reputable brand like Southwest a try to equate the Minnesota Nice standard of customer service.

    In short: CANNOT WAIT.

  4. Kevin – That makes a lot of sense. As for the SY overlap, I’d guess we’d see many of the Florida and Southwest US sun spots but probably also maybe BNA and MCI over time. Of course, I highly doubt we’ll see the kind of insane build up we’ve seen in DEN.

  5. Also, in addendum – if Southwest can get the Chicago fares down to where they used to be (around $100 or less RT), that’s a vast improvement over what we’re being charged currently. I could not believe a flight on NWA to O’Hare charging $280 RT last March. It was cheaper (and more cost efficient) to simply buckle up and drive across Wisconsin.

  6. Cranky, as a frequent flyer out of MSP I would like to hear your comments on the whole Sun Country saga as of late. I’ve always been a fan of Sun Country over the usual surly service I receive on NW and DL. Unfortunately they are mostly a leisure airline with seasonal flights to places like MIA and not nearly enough frequency to places like DFW to get many business travelers.

    As for WN, I welcome them to MSP. Not sure how they will affect local travel until they build a route map beyond Chicago. Doesn’t WN code-share with Westjet in Canada? MSP seems a logical location for WN to funnel Texas petro business travelers to Westjet flights to places like YYC & YEG. (Get on a NW flight out of MSP to those places and over half of them connected from Dallas or Houston, aka, WN country.) Still, the bigger question is what will DL do with MSP once the merger is complete? The Twin Cities has a sizable amount of Fortune 500 sized businesses for a metro of its size that demands a lot of high profit business travel. If DL cuts service or makes us fly through ATL to get anywhere I think WN could make a killing here.

  7. Cranky, how long until WN heads in one of the last fortress hubs, CLT? I realize one down side, the local market is pretty small.

    I think MSP is a great move for WN. I agree with your assessment of where they will eventually fly. I would think PVD or MHT would also be in the mix.

  8. Boy, cruising in and out of that small terminal would be a breeze as long as they have some rental counters there.

  9. A – Yeah, I missed a lot of the Sun Country saga while I was away, so that’s why I didn’t comment on it. It sounds like the owner, Petters, has been involved in some shady stuff. I have to assume that Sun Country will be in serious trouble if they can’t find anyone else to take them. With Southwest dipping its toe into MSP, I would be surprised to see them come back out of this as a scheduled carrier. But there can always be some lucrative work in the charter world, so maybe they go back to focusing on that business. I’m not sure, but it’s unclear what will happen to them right now.

    L1011 – Who knows. There’s been speculation about Charlotte, Cincinnati, etc for years but until this recent Minneapolis announcement, they hadn’t been going into the places you’d expect them to be. Charlotte probably has some good business to be had, but it’s apparently not at the top of the list yet.

    John M – They have rental counters in the Humphrey terminal (though I’m not sure where the cars are). Check it out:

  10. As a long time SWA traveler who travels to MSP a lot, I’m thrilled at the new destination. I bet local response will be tremendous–MSP is a really big market (metro population is bigger than Denver) and competition is scarce in part because Sun Country is so limited on destinations and schedules. The limiting factor to MSP growth will simply be Southwest’s cutback in growth of the fleet overall.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sun Country refocus on charters plus their niche of MSP based (mostly international) vacation and specialty markets.

    John M–Many car rental companies do stage some cars in the Humphrey terminal parking structure, so it is very convenient with no shuttling involved. Though they don’t stage a lot of cars there–if you want a wide selection of cars to choose from you’d need to train over to the Lindbergh terminal.

  11. Interesting to see that LUV has added a MSP-DEN route not even a month after MSP-MDW service started. LUV is doing well in MSP thus far (better than they first expected), hence the new service to DEN. I am sure LUV will add another city or two from MSP before year-end 2009 if the service to DEN is well attended.

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