- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Goodbye, Independence Air. Hello, Southwest.

Southwest Airlines, the nation’s largest low-cost airline, yesterday said it plans to begin flights from Washington Dulles International Airport in the fall, a move that will help fill the void left by the demise of budget carrier Independence Air.

Southwest, based in Dallas, didn’t divulge where it plans to fly, but airline officials said they requested two gates at Dulles and will operate 20 flights a day from the airport.

“If we want to have a presence at Dulles, we felt like now is the time,” Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said.

Mr. Kelly also said he thinks consumers who fly from Dulles pay inflated fares, which means it could plan to compete with United Airlines, the dominant carrier at Dulles since Independence Air folded in January. United and its regional carriers have nearly 300 daily departures at Dulles.

“They are sorely lacking in low fares in Northern Virginia, and therein lies the opportunity,” Mr. Kelly said.

United Airlines spokesman Brandon Borrman said the company welcomes the competition.

Southwest, which operates a fleet of 451 aircraft, plans to outline its routes and fares from Dulles during summer.

Southwest’s decision won’t diminish the role of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the airline’s fourth-largest airport and its largest on the East Coast, Mr. Kelly said.

Consumers are likely to benefit from Southwest’s presence at Dulles, said Carol Welti, vice president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a nonprofit group that promotes the growth of passenger and cargo service at Dulles Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

“Any time a carrier adds service in a market, it increases competition and lowers fares, and that’s good,” she said.

Consumers will see fare reductions only to cities Southwest serves, Campbell-Hill Aviation Group vice president Kevin Schorr said.

“You’re not going to see widespread fare impact,” Mr. Schorr said.

Independence Air’s success attracting passengers persuaded Southwest to put Dulles on its list of airports where it wanted to do business, Mr. Kelly said.

Then James E. Bennett, president and chief executive of Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, convinced Mr. Kelly that Southwest could operate at the airport economically.

“We think we had a very compelling case,” airports authority spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said.

Southwest will join low-cost domestic carriers AirTran, Ted and JetBlue Airways at Dulles. JetBlue arrived at Dulles in 2001 and this year bolstered service. Now it operates 15 flights a day to five cities. This summer, it will add one daily departure to Las Vegas.

Mr. Kelly denied that Southwest’s decision to move into Dulles was a defensive move to prevent JetBlue from cornering the low-cost market at the rapidly growing airport.

“It is not targeted at one competitor,” he said.

Dulles will be the first airport where Southwest and JetBlue compete head to head, JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin said.

“We’re pretty confident in what we’re doing for people at Dulles,” she said.

Rather than poach JetBlue’s customers, Southwest is likely to stimulate the market, she said.

“They may be trying to prohibit someone’s growth at Dulles, like JetBlue. There’s no doubt JetBlue is a serious player at Dulles,” Mr. Schorr said.

Southwest would become the 32nd airline operating at Dulles, which rose from Northern Virginia pastures in 1962.

A record 27 million passengers passed through the airport in 2005. Airport officials are investing about $4 billion on projects to help Dulles accommodate more passengers and planes.

BWI will remain Southwest’s primary East Coast airport, with 166 daily departures.

Many consumers from fast-growing Northern Virginia don’t travel to BWI because of traffic, Mr. Kelly said.

“We view these as two separate markets,” he said, and traffic congestion “makes it very logical for us to serve both markets.”

Southwest moved into BWI in 1993. Nearly 10 million passengers flew on Southwest flights out of BWI in 2005, accounting for 49 percent of the airport’s traffic.

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