Southwest Airlines coming to Twin Cities airport in '09

Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines has announced it will begin service to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in March 2009.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Southwest says its initial service to the Twin Cites will be modest, only flying between Chicago and the Twin Cities. The airline isn't yet saying how many daily flights it'll operate on the route. But folks flying Southwest to Chicago's Midway Airport will be able to catch connecting Southwest flights to 47 cities.

Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said the Dallas-based airline is looking to shift planes from less profitable routes to hopefully more profitable ones. And, Mainz said, Southwest likes the opportunities it sees in the Twin Cities.

"The time was right and we just decided we would take advantage of an opportunity to serve a very high demand market," Mainz said. "We feel like the demand there would support our modest start and the flights we plan to operate."

A passenger checks in and prints boarding passes from a self-service terminal at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

Over a million passengers a year fly between the Twin Cities and the two Chicago airports. Fares have jumped $100 to $200 or more in many cases since AirTran stopped flying between the Twin Cities and Chicago earlier this year. The route is now dominated by Northwest, United and American airlines, which upped their fares.

It's a good bet Southwest will force fares down between the Twin Cites and Chicago, and perhaps points beyond. The airline loves to tout its low fares and resistance to baggage and other fees.

Mainz said the pending merger of Northwest and Delta airlines had nothing to do with Southwest's decision to enter the market. He insists the woes of Mendota Heights-based Sun Country Airlines didn't figure in the decision either.

Struggling Sun Country is now trying to fly independently of its owner, Petters Group Worldwide. Petters CEO, Tom Petters, is the subject of federal fraud investigation.

Metropolitan Airports commission chairman Jack Lanners said people have been asking him for years when Southwest would come to town. Now that the airline is finally coming, he's confident Southwest will find the market profitable and worth growing.

"[Southwest's presence] promises tremendous benefits to the airport, to Minnesota and to the Upper Midwest region."

"Modest service equals great news," Lanners said. "It's terrific. It opens up a significant chunk of their network through Midway from MSP, which we have not been connected to."

It's unusual for Southwest to offer just one nonstop destination when it launches service in a market. Usually, it provides nonstop service to several destinations.

But Minneapolis-based travel expert Terry Trippler expects Southwest could significantly expand its service down the road.

"They're very cautious because of the economy," Trippler said. "very modest. But if it works, they'll be growing rapidly."

Meanwhile, Trippler said Southwest will spell out its initial Twin Cities schedule and fares next month.

"We'll know in about six to eight weeks," Trippler said. "We'll know exactly, because their schedule for March will be out. We'll know the schedule, flights and fares."

Of course, Southwest will be a gnat compared to Northwest in this market. Northwest and its regional carriers fly tens of millions of passengers in and out the Twin Cities. And, they fly well over 60 percent of the travelers whose trips begin and end in the Twin Cities. But Southwest will likely force fares down on routes where it competes with Northwest.

The question is how intense might the battle eventually become between Southwest and the airline that will be formed by the merger of Northwest and Delta airlines. Northwest, at least, has a history of responding fiercely to low-fare challengers that try to take too much business away from it. Northwest has outfought or outlasted many low-fare challengers.

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