Southwest's Big Dallas Expansion: What It Means

Southwest Airlines announced it will start flying between Dallas/Love Field and 15 new destinations this fall, as soon as the law allows.

  • On October 13, it will start linking Love Field with Baltimore, Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Chicago.
  • On November 2, it will add Atlanta, Nashville, Washington/Reagan National, Los Angeles, New York/La Guardia, Phoenix, San Diego, Santa Ana/Orange County, and Tampa.
  • Southwest will announce specific schedules and fares in May.

This announcement got quite a bit of play in the trade press. Some of the reports were downbeat, claiming that the new routes already had lots of competition and that travelers on these routes would not experience much of the traditional "Southwest effect" of lowering everybody's fares. That's not the point. To paraphrase James Carville's classic 1992 slogan, "It's Love Field, stupid."

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Love Field is the preferred airport for many travelers to Dallas. It's much closer to downtown Dallas than the new Dallas-Ft. Worth International. It was the area's original—and, for a long time only—commercial airport. It was also Southwest's original home base, when Southwest started out in 1971 as an intrastate airline, modeled on California's PSA, offering unregulated low fares for flights linking Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. And Southwest was quite happy to stay there.

But Love Field was too small to accommodate the growth of air traffic in the large metro area, it was too close in to be expanded to the necessary size, and politically powerful folks in Ft. Worth wanted the region's main airport to be closer. So the huge new DFW airport was planned for 1974, midway between the two sponsoring cities. But most airlines didn't want to give up cozy, close-in Love Field for the newer mega-airport. So, in true bureaucratic fashion, the local political leaders got Congress to pass the Wright Amendment (to some bill nobody remembers), which limited Love Field flights to destinations in Texas and its four contiguous states. Although that limit was subsequently eased a bit, Love Field remained severely crippled. As planned, all the big airlines other than Southwest moved to DFW. But Southwest stayed put. Fortunately, subsequent legislation and litigation established a "sunset" date of October 2014, for Love Field geographical limits, by which time DFW presumably would need no more artificial "protection."

After waiting out the sunset period, Southwest will now enjoy a dynamite position in Dallas. Love Field is, as indicated, much closer to downtown Dallas than DFW, the terminal is small and user-friendly, and it's a better choice for most people living in or going to Dallas: Cab fares to/from the city center are about $17 for Love Field, $48 for DFW. It's the local equivalent of La Guardia in New York and Reagan/National in Washington. Southwest can now offer flights linking its key cities all around the nation with Dallas' favorite airport. Moreover, Southwest controls almost all of the gates at Love Field, so no big competitor can come in and offer any sort of robust competition. Southwest doesn't have to lower its fares: Love Field is enough.

Clearly, Southwest doesn't have enough planes to add 15 busy routes all at once. It will have to cut service on some other routes. Most speculation centers on routes where Southwest now flies between Love Field and the same major destinations around the country one-stop via Albuquerque, Tulsa, Little Rock, New Orleans, or Birmingham. Also, Southwest will drop a few underperforming routes: It has already announced Branson as a casualty. Folks in those cities and others will see at least a temporary drop in Southwest's frequencies, perhaps to be regained as Southwest takes deliveries of the many new 737s it has on order.

The net result for travelers in Southwest's large destinations around the country is simple. If you plan on visiting Dallas after October, keep in mind that Southwest will be able to take you directly to small, close-in, user-friendly Love Field. And if you're headed for Ft. Worth, you'll probably want to take some other line.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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