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Southwest marks 20 years of service at BWI

Air Transportation IndustrySouthwest AirlinesNew ProductsCultureMartin O'Malley

After 20 years, do you still feel the LUV, Baltimore?

Southwest Airlines does – big time. The airline is celebrating its 20th anniversary at BWI-Marshall International Airport. Since launching service on Sept. 15, 1993, Southwest has grown to become the largest carrier at the airport.

"It’s changed the whole nature of the airport in that 20-year time period," said Paul Wiedefeld, executive director of BWI, adding that Southwest has helped position the airport as one of the busiest in the Baltimore-Washington region in terms of passengers.

Beyond BWI itself, Wiedefeld said, Southwest has also had an impact on tourism, making it easier for people to get to Baltimore to watch a baseball game or to bring thousands of visitors to the city for a conference. 

"It’s done tremendous things," he said. "Overall, it's obviously been a win for the airport, but also for the hotels around here and in Baltimore City."

Two decades ago, the airline offered fewer than 10 flights from Baltimore to two cities – Chicago and Cleveland. Today, it has more than 200 flights a day to 58 cities.

"Obviously it was a product that was filling a different need," said Wiedefeld. "It accumulated a lot of traffic that wasn't being served."

When Southwest started in 1993, some 9.4 million passengers flew through BWI. Last year, the airport's passenger traffic soared above 22 million, setting a record for the third-straight year. That's a 140 percent increase since 1993. 

That sheer volume has also helped improve the economy of the region, Wiedefeld said, pointing to the number of people employed by the airline. Including its ownership of Airtran Airways, Southwest has some 3,000 employees based in Baltimore.

Southwest Airlines is also happy in a relationship that has led to extraordinary growth for both parties, said airline spokesman Brad Hawkins.

"[20 years] is a tremendous testament to the partnership and to having a cost environment that works for us," Hawkins said. "BWI makes it attractive for us to do business here."

Southwest also credits BWI for giving it a launching pad for the East Coast, said Hawkins.

The move to Baltimore was the airline's first attempt at cracking the East Coast market.  To mark its arrival in Baltimore in 1993, Southwest offered one-way fares as low as $19 to Cleveland and $39 to Chicago. The airline's low-cost flights sparked a fare war with then-USAir, which at the time was the largest carrier at BWI.

"What we saw at BWI [back then], was a growth magnet for the whole area with people driving as much as two hours to save an average of 40 percent on airfare," Hawkins said. Now the airline offers flights from East Coast cities including Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta and New York.

"Baltimore grew all of our Southwest fans [in the East] and now we’re able to serve them from many points," he said. "It’s a keystone accomplishment in that whole growth."

Baltimore was the 36th city for Southwest operations and now is the airline’s third-busiest airport in terms of daily departures.  Flights operated by Southwest account for some 70 percent of the commercial traffic at BWI.

Wiedefeld said the airline also has helped BWI to draw passengers outside of the Baltimore area. 

"We've really stretched into the Washington market with Southwest Airlines," said Wiedefeld. "Almost 45 percent of our traffic comes from the Washington region."

For now, Southwest does mostly domestic travel, although its wholly owned subsidiary Airtran offers flights from Baltimore to Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Mexico and the Bahamas. But Southwest is also looking to launch its flagship brand into international travel, and BWI wants to be ready when the airline decides to enter the global market, perhaps as early as 2015.

In July, Gov. Martin O'Malley administration announced a $125 million airport construction project that could strengthen BWI’s ability to attract international flights, a move that appears to dovetail with Southwest’s plans. 

"Our international traffic is up about 25 percent," said Wiedefeld. "A lot of that is driven by Southwest/Airtan."

Both Wiedefeld and Hawkins said they see the relationship between BWI and Southwest continuing stronger than ever, with an emerging focus on additional services that could benefit both parties.

"We're going to be talking a lot about international flights in the months ahead," Hawkins said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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