Dec. 20--Southwest Airlines will add a second daily flight to Baltimore next summer in what Memphis airport officials hope will be the start of a trend.
A single nonstop from Memphis to Baltimore-Washington International Airport began Nov. 3 when Southwest entered Memphis International Airport.
"They said those planes are packed," said Barney Parrella, executive vice president of InterVISTAS, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based aviation consultant hired by the Airport Authority to work on recruiting more airlines.
Southwest, the country's largest passenger carrier, plans a 5 percent reduction in available seats in the first six months of 2014 systemwide, but that would not necessarily hurt Memphis "if they see us as an opportunity notwithstanding what's going on in the rest of their system," Parrella said Thursday.
Because Memphis is emerging from decades of dominance by hub operators, most recently Delta, other airlines including Southwest are having to test the waters to gauge market demand for flights, he said. Delta dismantled the Memphis hub and quit calling the city a hub in September.
Comments from Airport Authority board members suggested they're restless about progress on new service and wondering what they might do differently.
"Sometimes it seems to me we need to throw a lot more resources at recruitment," said board member Pace Cooper.
Parrella assured Cooper that airport incentives are "very competitive" compared to other airports. So far, incentives approved in May 2012 haven't figured into Southwest's moves and Frontier's plan to serve Denver in March.
Board member Ruby Wharton asked if the airport should do more to encourage demand among businesses and the public at large. "In other words what I'm saying is we need to be bugging people more."
A regional task force convened by mayors has been studying what incentives might be added, and the Greater Memphis Chamber has campaigned to boost membership in Southwest's frequent flier program.
Latest figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation showed the city's historically high airfares are moderating as the hub goes away and more competition enters the market. Memphis was still well above the national average -- $237 for a one-way fare compared to the $166 average -- but the gap was narrowing.
"There's a beginning of a downturn in pricing," Parrella said. "It's beginning to mitigate. Now we're going to have to get a whole lot more carriers."
Airport executives say Southwest officials have told them Southwest could be the airport's biggest carrier within a year, if customers embrace the new service. Delta, the largest carrier at the airport, dropped down to 49 flights a day Dec. 3.
Southwest also flies from Memphis twice daily to Chicago Midway and once a day to Houston Hobby, Tampa and Orlando.
Southwest's flights in and out of Memphis were 76 percent full in November, a rate less than the national average.
Among all airlines hauling passengers throughout the nation, 83.76 percent of the seats were full this year through Sept. 30.
Copyright 2013 - The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.
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