Southwest Airlines Co. added six daily nonstop flights from New Orleans this past weekend, for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, making the Dallas carrier once again the largest airline operating from the Louis Armstrong International Airport.
The new round-trips will run between New Orleans and the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport in Florida, the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, the Baltimore/Washington International Airport and Chicago Midway International Airport. There will also be an additional flight between New Orleans and the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston.
The new flights bring Southwest's total to 24. While that's more than other carriers, it still amounts to only 43 percent of the of the airline's pre-Hurricane Katrina service.
Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said restoring air service to New Orleans is a priority because the city has historic significance for Southwest: It was the airline's first destination outside of Texas.
But Southwest has more demand than it does planes, and after adding four cities to its route map in the past 18 months -- Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Denver and Fort Myers, Fla. -- the planes that used to serve New Orleans were needed in other cities.
"It was a business decision to deploy the aircraft to other routes where they could make they could make money," McInnis said.
The airport has said that after the addition of these six Southwest flights, there probably won't be any significant gains in air service out of New Orleans until the fall, when the cruise ships and conventions return.
Southwest is trying to pace its return in New Orleans with the city's rebuilding. Deploying aircraft may get easier, as Southwest is taking delivery of 33 new planes this year, but decisions on where to place aircraft weigh demand in New Orleans against demand in other cities.
"We are in situations were we have more demand than we have airplanes, so we have to prioritize," McInnis said. "It's almost like building a new market again."
Right now there are 107 daily departures from New Orleans, about 64 percent of the 166 flights per day before Katrina. Those flights go to 34 cities, compared with 44 destinations before the storm. There are about 12,300 airline seats serving the market, about 60 percent of the pre-Katrina level.
While Southwest used to be the largest carrier at the airport by a significant margin, followed by Delta Air Lines Inc. , and then all the rest, the amount of service offered by Southwest and the legacy carriers is much closer now than it used to be. For example, Southwest has 24 daily flights, and Continental Airlines Inc. has 17 flights per day.
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