May 19--Albuquerque travelers will have fewer choices this fall when booking flights to Dallas, Las Vegas, Nev., and Phoenix.
Southwest Airlines -- the company responsible for more than half the traffic at the Albuquerque International Sunport -- will offer six fewer Albuquerque flights come November compared with the same month last year.
In cuts that are considered permanent, it will eliminate three daily trips to Dallas, and one each to Phoenix and Las Vegas, Nev. It also will discontinue the daily flight to Seattle, though that move might only be seasonal.
All told, Southwest's November slate features 34 daily Albuquerque flights. That's down from 40 last November and 45 two years ago.
The news came Monday as Southwest announced its schedule for the end of 2014 and into early January.
It is the first schedule not impacted by the Wright Amendment, a federal law that expires in October. Under Wright, Southwest's nonstop flights from its hub at the Dallas Love Field airport were limited to a handful of nearby states, including New Mexico. Albuquerque became a frequent landing spot for Southwest flights between Dallas and popular West Coast destinations like Las Vegas, Nev., Los Angeles and Phoenix.
There had been some trepidation in Albuquerque about how the Sunport would fare when Southwest broke free of Wright restrictions and had the legal ability to bypass New Mexico en route to bigger Western cities.
Southwest is far and away the Sunport's busiest carrier. In March -- the last month for which data are available -- Southwest accounted for 56 percent of all Sunport passengers.
But Monday's announcement actually came as something of a mild relief to city leaders. Mayor Richard Berry said he had anticipated worse news.
"It's a little less bad than we thought," he told business leaders at a luncheon Monday.
Sunport spokesman Daniel Jiron said the airport had budgeted for the upcoming fiscal year expecting to lose 13 to 15 percent of its Southwest passenger traffic and 6 percent of its overall traffic.
But based on Monday's update, he said the Sunport likely will lose 8 to 10 percent of its Southwest passengers and 4 to 5 percent of its overall traffic.
While that's hardly good news -- especially for an airport that has lost passengers every year since 2008 -- Jiron said the Sunport is financially prepared to weather worse cutbacks.
"It looks like we'll come in a little better based on what (Southwest) told us," Jiron said. "Budgetwise, we're in great shape for the next fiscal year."
Travelers may not be as relieved -- especially those heading to Dallas.
Come November, Southwest will operate five daily nonstops between Albuquerque and Dallas Love Field. That's down from eight daily flights last November.
Brad Hawkins, a Southwest spokesman, said the Dallas reductions in particular reflect the expected drop in "thru" or "same-plane" passengers who previously had to stop in other cities on longer-haul flights.
"We expect the new flight schedule to effectively free up more seats for local passengers on the nonstop flights we will offer from Albuquerque; and, in each of our cities, we align local customer demand with the flight schedule we publish," Hawkins said in an email to the Journal . "The new, post-Wright Amendment schedule continues to provide a mix of nonstop and connecting opportunities for Albuquerque customers."
But it also includes other cuts beyond Dallas.
The Sunport will lose some service to Las Vegas, Nev. The November schedule has four daily flights to Sin City compared with five in 2013.
Frequency on the Albuquerque-to-Phoenix route will dip this fall to six daily flights from seven a year ago.
Southwest also will drop its daily nonstop between Albuquerque and Seattle in November, though Jiron said that flight is expected to return. Either way, Alaska Airlines plans to start its own nonstop service to Seattle in September.
Jiron said it's too soon to know whether any other airlines will add the flights that Southwest is dropping, though there already are other carriers who fly some of those routes.
American Airlines offers its own service between Albuquerque to Dallas, while US Airways flies between Albuquerque and Phoenix.
Jiron said the Sunport continues to aggressively recruit new airlines and routes to the market and will consider fighting for additional frequencies on existing routes, if necessary.
"If there is a demand for current markets, we will certainly have conversations about those as well," he said.
Southwest's cuts could have been much worse, said Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO Dale Lockett.
Despite lost flights to key tourism targets like Dallas and Phoenix, he said he remains optimistic because Southwest didn't permanently sever any destinations.
"Obviously, we would prefer not to lose any frequency at all, but I think what they've detailed shows ... a continued commitment to the destination," he said.
Copyright 2014 - Albuquerque Journal, N.M.