Dec. 30--When Southwest Airlines began service in the Twin Cities in 2009, the long-anticipated move was cheered by travelers hoping for additional flights and competition.
Nearly five years later, Southwest has drawn enough fans at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to expand its nonstop schedule to eight cities. On the routes it serves, passenger counts have tended to increase and airfares have trended downward, a welcome effect at an airport that's been criticized for few choices beyond Delta Air Lines -- which, also five years ago, acquired locally based market-dominant Northwest Airlines.
"We're meeting our expectations," said Dan Landson, a spokesman for Dallas-based Southwest. "The last five years have been good for us."
When Southwest started flying to markets such as St. Louis and Kansas City, data show the impact was immediate at MSP: higher passenger traffic and lower airfares on those routes.
What's not as clear is whether the fabled "Southwest effect" has carried over more broadly at MSP. The effect is noticed regularly at airports that gain Southwest service: an increase in overall traffic, with the underlying assumption that lower airfares pull in more passengers.
While Southwest has brought additional competition to its nonstop routes here, airline observers say there's something that's packed more of a punch than the Southwest effect: the Great Recession. And the numbers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International back that up.
Annual passenger traffic at MSP peaked in 2005 at 37.6 million. Since then, it's never been higher than 34 million and is on pace to hit about 33.7 million in 2013.
Both business and leisure traveler counts have been down at MSP since 2005, said Brian Peters, a business developer for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which runs the Twin Cities airport. Peters' job includes convincing new airlines to start offering service here.
"The biggest change has been that Delta has a smaller operation here than Northwest had at its peak time," Peters said. "The industry's a lot different today than it was in 2005. There are fewer flights, and more full flights."
And in the bigger picture, Southwest still is a small player in the Twin Cities. For the full-year 2012, Delta and its affiliates carried 76.5 percent of the passengers at MSP, while Southwest and its subsidiary AirTran had 5.6 percent.
Across the nation, as Southwest has grown, it's stopped fitting the profile of a low-cost carrier, said Michael Boyd, an airline industry analyst. The point-to-point flying model that Southwest used in its earlier days has started to look more like the hub-and-spoke system used by legacy airlines such as Delta.
"That's a change they've had to make" for greater efficiency, Boyd said.
In Denver, about 45 percent of Southwest's passenger traffic is catching connecting flights, he said. At Chicago's Midway airport, it's about 50 percent.
The routes to Chicago's two airports are among the most heavily traveled out of MSP, and the airline competition for those routes is arguably as healthy as it's ever been. All airlines included, there are about 45 departures per day out of MSP to O'Hare and Midway, Peters said.
Southwest began operations at Midway in 1985, and now, with AirTran, is the dominant carrier at Chicago's smaller airport. The two carriers control 34 of the 43 gates at Midway and serve 60 nonstop destinations.
For Seneca Giese, a regional manager for Tesla Motors who is based in Chicago, the convenience of flying Southwest is key. He flies occasionally to visit Tesla's service center in Eden Prairie.
"I live close to Midway (airport)," he said, "and my company takes care of the airfare. It tends to be pretty low as it is."
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