Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest discount carrier, plans to resume service at San Francisco International Airport this fall, more than six years after pulling out of SFO because of what the airline said were unacceptable flight delays, high costs and curbs on growth.
Finally, those issues have been resolved, Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said Thursday, prompting the airline to return to SFO with a still-unannounced roster of destinations and a promise of cheap, as yet unspecified introductory fares.
When Southwest returns this fall, it will begin with at least 14 daily departures and a mix of short, medium and long flights, he said.
Southwest will continue to serve Mineta San Jose International Airport, where it operates 76 daily departures, and Oakland International Airport, where it has built a strong following and has 142 daily departures. Indeed, Southwest will continue to expand in those airports, "especially Oakland,'' Kelly said, "where we will be getting four more gates this year.''
Of the return to SFO, Kelly said, "I'm very excited. We are the largest intra-California carrier. San Francisco is by far the largest airport we don't serve. It is a very attractive destination for our customers.''
SFO's director, John Martin, praised the return of Southwest, easily the nation's most profitable airline, with 122 consecutive profitable quarters. The Dallas carrier pulled out of SFO in March 2001, when it operated 14 daily departures and has since, in Kelly's accounting, doubled in size nationally.
"We're very pleased to have Southwest back at SFO,'' Martin said. "It's good for the customer, especially in San Francisco and San Mateo counties. It will create a more competitive fare environment.''
Last month, low-cost carrier JetBlue Airways said it will start service from SFO May 3 with flights to New York's John F. Kennedy airport.
"Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America (still awaiting government approval to fly) are all seeing that there are opportunities at SFO. Fares to some destinations have been so high, there is untapped potential,'' Martin said.
SFO has been pursuing low-cost carriers since the dot-com meltdown and terrorist attacks of 2001 drove away nearly a third of its business, but has had spotty success. AirTran Airways, Frontier Airlines and Midwest Airlines fly from San Francisco, but ATA went bankrupt and Independence Air folded its wings.
Martin said he has been wooing Southwest for the last year and a half. SFO's landing fees and other airport charges have been slashed 30 percent over the past five years, Martin said, and that helped persuade Southwest to return.
"John Martin has done a very fine job in getting the costs down,'' said Kelly, adding SFO now has more gates available than in its busiest years, when Southwest felt hemmed-in. Kelly also noted that SFO has installed improved technology, helping aircraft to safely operate in bad weather.
"I fully expect that the 'Southwest effect' will work very well (to lower fares of other airlines), once we return to SFO,'' Kelly said.
Southwest will operate out of Terminal 1, while JetBlue and Virgin America (should it get permission to begin flying) will use gates in the International Terminal.
With business gradually recovering, Martin said, SFO is dusting off plans to renovate Terminal 2 (the old international terminal), which has been closed since December 2001, when the new International Terminal opened.
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