Southwest's Next Growth Spurt

Southwest expects to lease 12 gates at Philadelphia International Airport.


Southwest Airlines vowed when it started flying to Philadelphia last year to grow aggressively here -- and it is about to get its chance to do just that.

By next spring, Southwest expects to lease 12 gates at Philadelphia International Airport, enabling it to double the schedule of 53 flights a day it has now, airline and airport officials said.

That could put further pressure on US Airways Group Inc., the airport's largest carrier, to cut prices on markets that it serves out of Philadelphia. In 2004, when Southwest invaded US Airways' Philadelphia turf, average one-way fares here plummeted 26 percent.

Southwest, the nation's largest airline in terms of passengers carried, operates from six gates now -- two in Terminal D and four in Terminal E.

By early January, Southwest will take over leases on two gates used by United Airlines in the D concourse, said Steve Sisneros, Southwest's manager of properties.

By spring, Southwest will get four gates now used by Delta Air Lines, next to the ones it has now in Terminal E, after work is completed on new baggage-handling facilities that will serve Terminals A-East and A-West, said Mark Gale, deputy city aviation director.

United will continue to operate from Terminal D. Delta is moving to A-East, where space is opening because British Airways is moving to A-West, the main international concourse, Gale said.

United and Delta are operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and trimming the number of airport gates they lease reduces costs.

It is too early to say where Southwest will add service once it has the additional gates, Sisneros said. The airline serves 61 cities nationwide, and it recently announced plans to start flying from Denver.

Southwest added flights to Fort Myers, Fla., from Philadelphia on Oct. 2. On Oct. 27, the airline said it would add eight daily flights from Philadelphia to six cities it already serves: Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Jacksonville, Fla.

Southwest tries to use gates at every airport it serves for about 10 arriving and departing flights a day, said John Minor, the airline's Philadelphia station manager. Most airlines use an airport gate for only six or seven daily "turns" -- an arrival and departure -- because their planes spend more time on the ground between flights than Southwest's do.

Michael Boyd, an airline consultant and president of the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo., said Southwest faced higher labor and fuel costs in the next few years and needed to grow to maintain its string of 32 profitable years.

"Initially, look for a lot more north-south flying" by Southwest to Florida and other cities in the Southeast, "and for them to put the squeeze on US Airways," Boyd said. "They will also fill in where they don't fly now."

Southwest flies to six Florida cities from Philadelphia, but has no nonstop service from here to a dozen major destinations throughout the East.

Even with more than 100 flights a day, Southwest will remain well behind US Airways in Philadelphia departures. Philadelphia is US Airways' second-largest domestic hub and its primary international hub, with 475 daily flights to 110 destinations.

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