- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

DALLAS | LaGuardia Airport is the smallest of the three major airports in the New York area, with just two main runways. Planes often sit in long lines on the tarmac, waiting their turn to take off.

On Sunday, low-fare carrier Southwest starts service at LaGuardia, one of the nation’s most congested airports. This should bring cheaper ticket prices to New York-area vacationers flying to Chicago, Baltimore and beyond.

The move is part of a risky transition that Southwest knows it has to make to win the loyalty of business travelers who increasingly will dictate its future prospects for success.

Southwest prospered by offering low fares to leisure travelers whose only other affordable option was a car trip. It flew primarily to America’s secondary airports where costs are low and productivity is high because incoming planes can land, drop off passengers, take on the next group and get back in the air quickly.

The Dallas-based carrier still sees itself as an underdog today, even as it serves 65 cities and carries more than 100 million U.S. passengers per year, more than any other airline.

There are still no first-class cabins and no assigned seats on Southwest, giving it the air of a carrier for penny-pinching vacationers.

“We’re very dependent on business travelers, so we’re not a leisure airline like some of our smaller competitors are,” CEO Gary C. Kelly countered in an interview. He says company surveys show that in normal times at least 40 percent of his customers are traveling on business.

Airlines covet business travelers because they make repeat trips and often pay higher fares for booking at the last minute.

Southwest needs that revenue now. The airline has been profitable for 36 straight years but has been in the red since the fall. Traffic is down and costs are rising.

While it’s cutting flights across its system, Southwest is also entering New York and three other big cities, including Boston’s Logan airport.

Southwest gained an opening at LaGuardia with the failure of a former partner, ATA. Southwest bought ATA’s LaGuardia takeoff and landing slots out of bankruptcy in December.

Despite the notorious delays in New York, Southwest officials think they can turn around incoming planes in 30 minutes, close to its nationwide average.


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