Southwest begins service Sunday, who's flying?by Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
When pigs fly, that's when many folks thought Southwest Airlines would start serving the Twin Cites. Well, pigs aren't flying yet, but Southwest finally launches air service between the Twin Cites and Chicago on Sunday.
Southwest's long-awaited arrival is seriously pushing down fares to the Windy City, and many points beyond. But will Southwest quit, like so many other low-cost carriers?
Paul Pregont is trying to start up a business, and that's requiring fairly regular trips to Chicago.
Before Southwest announced it would be flying between the Twin Cities and Chicago, Pregont often found tickets for a quick roundtrip to Chicago were running $700 to $800. That forced him to take Amtrak or to drive.
But Pregont says Northwest, and the other airlines that have dominated the route, have been slashing fares.
"With Southwest coming, the fares are coming way down to $100, $150 roundtrip," Pregont said.
Northwest, United and American airlines are preparing to fight Southwest for customers on what is the most-heavily travelled air route out of the Twin Cites. More than a million passengers fly it every year.
Many other low-fare carriers have challenged Northwest on key routes out of the Twin Cities over the decades. But Northwest crushed one after another.
But, Prejong thinks Southwest won't be defeated.
"We've seen other airlines come in to this market to go to Chicago, Midway and AirTran," he said. "And they didn't survive. But I think Southwest will be able to compete better. I think they'll get a good share of the business."
Northwest is now a subsidiary of Delta, which is the world's biggest airline. But Southwest is not just another low-fare airline. The airline carries more passengers within the U.S. than any other carrier. Southwest has a lot of muscle and staying power.
Walter Pickup of Monee, Ill., expects he'll fly Southwest to the Twin Cities four or five times a year to visit family. It's a lot better than driving eight hours he said.
"Southwest is going to be giving us such cheaper fares up here," Pickup said. "It's going to be great. We're really looking forward to it."
Pickup says he'll fly Southwest even if other airlines match its fares.
But other travelers suspect Northwest may blunt Southwest's threat by simply matching or beating Southwest fares and dishing out extra frequent flier miles or other perks to passengers.
Judith Martin of Minneapolis knows the drill.
"This has happened before," Martin said. "Northwest fliers are used to getting drops in prices for a short period of time. And then having everything jacked up again."
Northwest and Delta are already meeting or beating Southwest's fares to Chicago and a number of destinations that Southwest connects to via Chicago.
"We will compete aggressively and we look forward to the challenge," said Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta, Northwest's parent company.
Black said those weapons include the airlines' frequent flier programs, preferred customer lounges, their international destinations and business class service.
"We offer a full value of service that a lot of airlines don't have, particularly out of Minneapolis," Black said. "To be able to offer 500 daily flights to over 150 destinations, 22 international."
For travelers like Patti O'Connor of Chanhassen, the convenience of a direct flight is persuasive. She's leaning toward flying Southwest to Chicago, but she's not very keen about going anywhere else on Southwest if it requires a layover in chicago.
"I like it if it's a nonstop flight," she said. "I prefer nonstop flights."
Southwest expects a tough fight in the Twin Cites, but executive Mike Van de Ven said the Twin Cities is a great fit for Southwest, and its reputation for low fares.
"It's a high fare market. It connects into our network very well," he said.
Van de Ven said folks who are not familiar with Southwest will find it's very different from other carriers.
"If the people in the area will give Southwest a chance, they will find a company that has everyday low fares, a company that doesn't have a lot of hidden fees and, most of all, they're going to come up to employees who care about them as customers and are happy," Van de Ven said.
Southwest will operate eight daily roundtrip flights to Chicago's Midway Airport from the Humphrey terminal starting Sunday.
- Morning Edition, 03/06/2009, 7:20 a.m.