Southwest opens nonstop service to Baltimore, East Coast; Airline's decision to expand flight offerings is expected to benefit frequent fliers

Aug. 10, 2007

Maryland One pushed away from the gate - on time - Tuesday morning and marked the latest nonstop route from Will Rogers World Airport to the East Coast.

The Southwest Airlines flight to Baltimore/Washington International Airport comes two months after United Airlines added service to Washington Dulles airport from Oklahoma City.

Among the passengers on the almost-full Southwest flight was Craig Sherry of Oklahoma City. He was traveling to Reston, Va., on business for his company, Sprint Nextel Corp.

"I'm hoping to save a few hours," said Sherry, a frequent Southwest customer. "Before, I had to connect at another airport."

Lyall Armstrong's mind was far away from business. Armstrong, his wife and their four kids took the flight to Baltimore en route to Connecticut to visit family.

"It was complete serendipity that we're on this flight," Armstrong said. "We came from Springfield, Missouri, and our choices were either Oklahoma City or St. Louis."

Whatever their motivations, Armstrong and Sherry are just the types of passengers Southwest wants to attract to its daily Oklahoma City-Baltimore flight: business and leisure travelers looking for discount fares.

The flight officially started Saturday. But the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce hosted a "debut celebration" early Tuesday, complete with live music and a continental breakfast for passengers. The plane, dubbed Maryland One, is one of Southwest's "specialty planes." It was decked out in the colors and design of the Maryland flag.

Airport Director Mark Kranenburg said Will Rogers has added 10 direct flights in the last 10 months. The Baltimore flight is Southwest's 21st nonstop route from Oklahoma City.

"Their route planners look at things in each community very intensely when it comes to service," Kranenburg said. "It's clear that this is a vibrant, prosperous community."

Chamber executive Cynthia Reid said business leaders have been clamoring for a number of years to get nonstop service to the Washington area.

"This is a great day for the business flyer," Reid said.

Southwest - which has had open seating for decades - is experimenting with new boarding options, said Andi Pickle, area marketing manager. The airline previously said it hopes to have the new system ready later in the year.

"We're still in the testing phase, and I'm not absolutely positive what we're going to be moving forward with," Pickle said. "But we are testing in San Antonio this week with all of our flights out of there, and I assume we will be making some changes. Everything is on the table."

Meanwhile, record passenger loads are leading to a summer of delays and stretched airport capacity across the nation. The federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that 29 percent of flights were delayed more than 15 minutes in June.

Southwest has a better-than-average record on flight delays from Will Rogers Airport, according to service statistics. But its 7:50 p.m. Dallas Love Field-Oklahoma City flight arrived late more than 80 percent of the time in June, earning it a spot on the bureau's "most-delayed" list.

Pickle said she was on that flight Monday, and it arrived five minutes early.

"We're always trying to be on time," Pickle said. "That's one of our major concerns and we really work hard to be on time and give you the best customer service."

Tuesday, the Oklahoma City-Baltimore flight arrived 30 minutes early.

Southwest Flight 1657 leaves Oklahoma City daily at 8:10 a.m. and is scheduled to arrive in Baltimore at 12:05 p.m. The return flight leaves Baltimore at 5:35 p.m. and arrives in Oklahoma City at 7:40 p.m. Fares begin at $79 each way.