Southwest Airlines is preparing to as much as triple its daily departures from Denver International Airport, reflecting the carrier's intentions to grow rapidly in its newest market.
The low-cost airline appears close to receiving final Federal Aviation Administration approval on a proposal to fly as many as 60 daily nonstop departures from Denver. Southwest, which launched service at DIA in January, currently offers 20 daily flights from the airport.
Southwest's proposal signals that the company is bullish on its potential in Denver, said company spokeswoman Melanie Jones.
"This is a response to the success we're seeing there, and it's in anticipation of growth so when the time is right we have this step in place," Jones said, adding that the carrier has not announced specific plans for any new service.
Dallas-based Southwest last year received federal approval to start service at DIA and was told it would have to go through the process again if it planned to add more than 40 flights.
Airlines that want to start service or significantly increase flights at a given airport must meet certain environmental regulations. The FAA has issued a recommendation approving Southwest's latest proposal, saying the new flights conform with the regulations. The agency is now accepting public comment on the issue.
Southwest has said all along that it sees significant potential in Denver, and industry experts have been expecting Southwest to expand here sooner rather than later.
Last week, for instance, a Bear Stearns analyst downgraded shares of Denver-based Frontier Airlines, saying the carrier will face increased competition from Southwest.
"We believe expansion plans in Denver are aggressive and that Southwest capacity will more than triple in the next two years," analyst David Strine wrote in a research note to clients.
Experts say Southwest could boost flights from DIA to current destinations but also will look to add service to new cities such as Oakland, Calif.; Houston; Orlando, Fla.; and Nashville, Tenn.
Southwest is expanding rapidly nationwide as other airlines become more competitive. The carrier will add 33 planes to its fleet this year and has 140 planes scheduled for delivery between 2007 and 2012. Much of that growth likely will come at the expense of other carriers, said Evergreen-based aviation consultant Mike Boyd.
Still, he said, Southwest faces a tough battle in Denver. Both United and Frontier, the city's largest carriers, are fighting aggressively for passengers and are well-known in Denver. Boyd also argues that, price being equal, those two carriers offer a better product than Southwest.
"The last time I checked, Southwest was not included on the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai," Boyd said. "So there's no guarantee they will be successful."
Consumers could be the biggest winners in any Southwest expansion. The carrier already has helped push down fares at DIA since its arrival less than four months ago. During the first week of April, for instance, fares at DIA were down 18 percent from a year earlier, even as ticket prices nationally were on the upswing.
And, as the competition heats up, both United and Frontier are boosting their service ahead of the summer busy season.
The airport is "very pleased with Southwest's indication that it is looking at increasing its schedule," said DIA manager Turner West. "Increased competition is always good for the traveling public."
Southwest currently has three gates on the C concourse at DIA and will gain one more in June. It typically operates about 10 flights a day at each gate it leases, meaning it would need more if it expands in Denver.
West said DIA will make "every effort" to work with Southwest on securing additional gates.
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