A delegation of city and state representatives returned from a meeting with Southwest Airlines executives last month convinced that the Dallas-based short-haul airline will enter the Salt Lake market.
"They're coming, I'm sure of it," said Steve Lawson, chairman of The Utah Air Travel Commission, who was among the six who made the trip to Dallas to tell Southwest Chairman Herbert D. Kelleher that Salt Lake City is ready, willing and able to provide him four gates in Terminal One's B concourse whenever he's ready to come."We made a really strong pitch, now the ball's in his court," Lawson told commission members in his briefing Wednesday.
Lawson said Salt Lake routes to and from Phoenix, Las Vegas and Seattle would be a natural fit for Southwest in this market. The 20-year-old airline, founded by Kelleher, a former trial lawyer, operates on Boeing 737 aircraft on short routes nationwide, most of them less than 500 miles. Southwest is particularly active in the South.
Everywhere they operate, he said, fares tend to drop. Average ticket price, he said, is $56. "When Southwest went into Oakland, the newspaper headline read `Happy days are here again.' "
He said the delegation extended a formal invitation to Southwest executives to come to Salt Lake City and will continue to try to keep the city's name before them. He said it's clear that Southwest has already investigated Salt Lake City as an expansion site.
"They have been tracking us on a casual basis and indicated they will, at some point, open up corridors in the this market."
One of Salt Lake City's strongest selling points is its facilities, said Lawson. Average cost per passenger for airlines based here is only $3.15, compared with, for example, $12 at Denver's Stapleton International - a figure so high that Southwest, with its low fares, found it unacceptable and pulled out of the Denver market.
William G. Gibbs, the commission's legal counsel, said he was very impressed with Southwest as a "can do" unionized company with high employee morale. "It's a very unorthodox, casual company," he said, adding that it has made a profit every year for the past 18 years, something few airlines can say.
Gibbs said it is Southwest's practice when entering a new city to create a new market, not just duplicate routes already being flown by competitors.
Lawson said Southwest has a "spoke" rather than a "hub" operation, which prevents it from being concentrated too much in one city.
Under law, said Lawson, Southwest may not fly interstate more than 1,500 miles. It's highest traffic route is between Dallas and Austin where it runs 25 flights per day.