October 21, 2010

Fares Plummet On Day Southwest Details Service in Charleston

Allison Bird

Within an hour of Southwest Airlines' revealing details of its service launching from Charleston International Airport next year, local airfares plunged to $59 each way to Southwest-bound destinations – but only after March 13.

Charleston Airports Director Sue Stevens contorts herself into the captain's seat of a Southwest Airlines 737 on Wednesday, after the low-fare carrier announced its flight schedule out of Charleston International. Beginning in March, the airline will offer seven nonstop flights daily to Houston, Nashville, Chicago and Baltimore/Washington.

On that day the telltale red and purple planes will make their first commercial flights from the Lowcountry. Southwest will offer seven daily nonstop flights to four cities: three to Baltimore/Washington, two to Chicago, one to Nashville and one to Houston.

Bob Montgomery, Southwest's vice president of properties, delivered the news at a reception in the airport's international terminal Wednesday, past balloon archways and tables of breakfast foods.

Only a handful of local officials knew the routes and fares in advance and had been bound by a confidentiality agreement until the moment when a banner behind Montgomery unfurled to show the map. Montgomery said the new service gives travelers from Charleston access to 64 destinations across the country. "We're not here to test the Charleston market," he said. "We're moving here."

And with the relocation came a deal: Passengers can book some flights from Charleston for as low as $30 each way until 9 tonight. After that, fares edge up – but only to $59 in some cases. "Fear not," Montgomery said. "If you happen to miss it, if you can't get your computer booted up, Southwest is known as a low-cost carrier."

Watching the hourly airfares roll in late Wednesday morning, Travel Management Group owner John Powers said all major carriers cut their rates by at least 30 percent, most slashing by considerably more. Some fell from $228 one way to $59.

Experts predict that Southwest and the resulting "Southwest effect" on the markets it serves could save travelers to and from Charleston $180 million a year, while also bringing an extra 200,000 passengers through the airport annually.

**Ready To Fly
**Lee Anderson, a Goose Creek resident and Boeing employee, called the airline's reservation line about 10 a.m. Wednesday with a simple request: "I told them I want the first flight out of Charleston," Anderson said. "I don't care where it goes."

He and his wife will head to Chicago about 7 a.m. March 13. They plan to take a whirlwind tour of the Windy City, enjoy lunch, then fly home shortly after 4 p.m.

Southwest Airlines will begin service from Charleston to the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area, Chicago, Nashville and Houston in March, 2011. After the offical announcement, flight attendant Angela Sweeney gives an impromptu pre-flight emergency briefing for visitors during a tour of a Southwest 737.

Anderson said he claimed the seats early because he missed out on the first flight on the Boeing 787 plane he works on, and saw this as a similarly historic opportunity.

Southwest holds the title of the most profitable airline and the only one in the U.S. to remain profitable this decade, with 32 flights to 69 destinations. On March 13 that changes to 71.

Simultaneously with the Charleston announcement, Southwest also divulged its plans for service from Greenville- Spartanburg International Airport. The Upstate airport gets the same routes, plus an Orlando flight and minus one of the Baltimore/Washington flights.

S.C. Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican, called Southwest "the prize" in the airline world and credited state officials for cooperatively landing its business. "You know how many cities Southwest has left after they've opened?" Harrell asked. He then cupped a hand into the shape of a zero.

That track record holds special significance in Charleston, where low-cost carriers haven't lasted. Independence Air financially collapsed in 2006, and AirTran Airways discontinued local service late last year, citing poor sales in the higher-paying business sector.

When Charleston lost AirTran, fares surged to some of the highest in the nation. A round-trip ticket to New York, for example, soared from a little more than $200 round-trip without a required overnight stay to nearly $800.

Panama City Beach, a coastal community in the Florida Panhandle, faced a similar situation until Southwest began service May 23 with eight flights a day.

Dan Rowe, president and chief executive officer of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, said fares dropped among all carriers, and traffic grew by about 1,000 passengers a day.

"It's so much easier and affordable for people to get here from around the country and to get from here around the country," Rowe said.

**Price drop
**Cost comparison of lowest one-way fares available before and after Wednesday's announcement by Southwest:

  • Baltimore/Washington: $161 to $59
  • Nashville: $228 to $59
  • Houston: $131 to $99
  • Chicago: $219 to $99

Source: John Powers, Travel Management Group

Spreading the word

Frank Fredericks, managing director at Wild Dunes Resort on the Isle of Palms, pointed out that Southwest's local service brings 350,000 additional seats into Charleston every year and also provides access to the Holy City, a top 25 tourist market.

It also grants access to two huge states previously under-served, Texas and California, according to Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Helen Hill.

"It allows us to say with a straight face to a family of four from Texas that they can come for a vacation in Charleston," Hill said.

Plus, the Southwest deal comes with a $3.8 million advertising campaign. The airline will work with tourism organizations in Charleston and Greenville-Spartanburg, plus the state Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department, to attract new travelers.

Irene Riddle, director of brand engagement for Southwest, said that campaign will try to educate travelers that Southwest's low fares only work on the company's website, not such clearing houses as Expedia or Priceline. Plus, passengers can bring two bags without cost. "In this market that's going to be a huge hit because that includes golf clubs," Riddle said.

No fees for luggage is only part of Southwest's unique appeal. The company encourages employees to tailor their jobs to match their personalities.

Southwest flight attendant Angela Sweeney, who lives in Summerville, offered a peek into her routine Wednesday, delivering her takeoff instructions to a crowd of tourism officials onboard the display plane. With dead-pan humor, she told the giggling bunch, "If y'all are traveling with children today ... we're sorry."

And before asking them to settle in or to sit as uncomfortably as they wish, she reminded the group: "Flying time into Baltimore is when we get there, we get there."