Southwest Airlines will return to SFO

SFO -- Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest discount carrier, resumes service Sunday at San Francisco International Airport with 18 daily flights and cut-rate fares on initial departures to San Diego, Las Vegas and Chicago.

It's Southwest's largest initial new-city schedule in history and is expected to bring more San Mateo County and San Francisco residents back to SFO.

Southwest's introductory fares are $39 one way to San Diego, $59 to Las Vegas and $99 to Chicago, not including taxes and other fees. Southwest's new schedule includes eight daily flights to San Diego, seven to Las Vegas and three to Chicago.

The airline pulled out of SFO six years ago due to flight delays, high costs and restraints on growth. But costs have been cut by nearly one-third, and the airline has the green light for future expansion.

The airline's Chief Executive Gary Kelly said in May that he believes Southwest could grow to 100 daily flights at SFO. But the airline won't tip its hand on future expansion plans or whether places like Phoenix or Los Angeles could be added as new destinations from SFO.

Southwest's return to SFO coincides with the launch of Burlingame-based low-cost carrier Virgin America earlier this month and discounter JetBlue's SFO launch in May. The move is expected to fuel more low fares at SFO.

"This will continue the pressure on fares at SFO and is good news for consumers," said Gerald Bernstein, principal at the Velocity Group in San Francisco. "Each time you add competition, fares come down."

Southwest's introductory fares can be purchased through Oct. 10 at

and travel for those fares is valid from Aug. 26 through Oct. 31.

The fares also are good at Southwest's other two Bay Area gateways, Oakland International Airport and Mineta San Jose International Airport.

Southwest's competitors to San Diego from SFO include United Airlines, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and U.S. Airways. Those carriers' SFO-to-San Diego flights are listed at $200 round-trip on Bernstein noted that the airlines are likely to match Southwest's introductory fares "on a few flights."

"It's terrific news for consumers who get more competition and more choices," said Mike McCarron, SFO spokesman. "It's especially good news for travelers in San Mateo and San Francisco counties."

Over the past six years, Southwest has beefed up its service in Oakland and San Jose. It has 148 daily flights in Oakland, where it operates 60 percent of the daily flights, and plans to continue expansion there next spring. It operates 78 daily flight in San Jose.

Southwest will occupy two gates in Terminal 1 and initially employ 90 people for its SFO service.

Its rivals, JetBlue and Virgin America, will use gates in the International Terminal.

"(Southwest) needed another gateway in the Bay Area, because so many people have been going to Oakland," said Bernstein.

SFO has negotiated with Southwest for nearly two years to come back. It reduced the airport's landing fees and other airport charges by about 30 percent over the past few years, and that partially helped lure Southwest back.

As part of its celebration of returning to SFO, the airline is staging a free movie, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," at 8 p.m. Sunday at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. Chief Executive Gary Kelly will welcome people and give away free Southwest vacation packages at 7:30 p.m.

Business writer Tim Simmers can be reached at (650) 348-4361 or by e-mail at .