Southwest considers more flights; Boosts already planned for Essence

May 18, 2007
In New Orleans, carrier takes measured approach

Southwest Airlines is considering adding more flights to its New Orleans service this fall, a schedule planner for the Texas-based airline said Thursday. The company also is expected to soon announce plans to ramp up service temporarily for this summer's Essence Music Festival.

"The feeling we're getting is that the community is back on its feet," said Stuart Thomas, senior capacity planner for Southwest. "Already we're seeing a lot of positive things in our numbers."

Although Southwest still is the city's largest carrier, it is so by a much smaller margin than before Hurricane Katrina. As other airlines, particularly Continental Airlines, have quickly increased service since the storm, Southwest has taken a more measured approach to returning. The airline is operating just more than half of the flights it did before Katrina.

That is partly because the low-cost airline has more demand than planes, and an efficient operating system that makes it unable to reposition planes quickly, Thomas said. What's more, there is a six-month lag before Department of Transportation statistics tracking where and how many people are boarding planes, a key figure airlines use to gauge demand, are released. That means New Orleans, where the market is constantly fluctuating and attaining accurate measures is difficult, has not been regarded as having enough demand to justify more service.

"That's one of the challenges we've had since the storm," Thomas said.

Thomas was one of several Southwest schedule planners invited by Armstrong International Airport to visit the city two days last month and meet with airport officials, business leaders and tourism executives, who all pleaded their case for more air service. The airport has hosted several of its carriers in the city since Katrina, in the hope that face time with customers -- paired with airport-generated traffic statistics -- would lead to increased service.

"We really wanted to show them that there are things happening in this region," said Maggie Woodruff, the airport's deputy director for community and governmental affairs. "We wanted to show them that we are a better product."

Thomas said he was surprised to learn the number of businesses and business travelers using the airport. He also applauded improvements made at the Louisiana Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which he said help to improve the image of the city and could drive traffic.

"When we came to visit, it became more apparent how important it is to get more seats," Thomas said. "We want to get more convenience back for business travelers."

With that in mind, Southwest is considering adding flights to existing routes that are in high demand. That means, for instance, adding a late-night flight from New Orleans to, say, Houston to accommodate a business traveler who misses an earlier flight.

"Business leaders said they didn't always have the traditional convenience they were used to," Thomas said. "A first concern is making sure we have convenience."

Southwest also is studying demand to determine if it will return service from New Orleans to cities it dropped since Katrina, such as Los Angeles. But Thomas said that is not as much of a priority. In the long run, it's more likely that direct service to Los Angeles would not return because it doesn't provide the opportunity for a continuing flight.

A previously announced new direct service to Dallas aside, any additional service is unlikely to be added soon. The airline, which builds its schedules six months in advance, is now working on plans for the fall travel. The summer schedule is "set in stone," Thomas said. Changing it would require canceling already-booked flights. However, after meeting with the local delegation, Thomas said the company could add some additional flights in July to accommodate travelers in town for the Essence Music Festival. The flights would be early morning or late night, using planes that have comparatively less demand at those hours in the cities where they are based. An announcement is expected "any day now," Thomas said.

Overall, air service has been climbing steadily. This month, there are 118 daily flights and 13,869 seats. That's about 73 percent of the daily flights and 67 percent of the seats available pre-Katrina. Service is expected to climb to 122 daily flights and 14,274 seats next month when Southwest, ExpressJet Airlines, USAirways, United Airlines and Northwest Airlines add service.

Aviation Director Sean Hunter said the additional service is a reflection of the growing demand. The need for more service is evidenced, perhaps, in that New Orleans was the first market to overbook an ExpressJet Airlines flight, Hunter said. The upstart airline is based in Houston and is the first new carrier to add service to New Orleans since Katrina. Hunter said officials with the airline, which did not return calls seeking comment, report "very strong passenger numbers."

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Jaquetta White can be reached at or (504) 826-3494.

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