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New airline for BWI?


Reports that Southwest Airlines is planning to operate at Baltimore-Washington International Airport make a lot of sense.

In an industry that has been suffering severe losses in recent years, Southwest has stood out as a successful operation. Its secret: good service with few frills and low fares. It is essentially a short-haul airline, but it has hopscotched from the West Coast to the Midwest. A jump to the East Coast, at an underutilized but well-located airport like BWI, is logical.

The reported move dovetails neatly with BWI's plans to increase the flow of passengers through the airport. Most attention has been paid recently to the critical addition of international passenger facilities. At the same time state officials plan to open a campaign to increase domestic traffic.

An important aspect of the marketing drive is to convince travelers in the Washington area that BWI is more convenient for them than Dulles International or National airports across the Potomac. What better magnet than an inexpensive airline that takes them just as quickly and conveniently to key destinations such as Chicago? And that makes such a favorable impression they remember it the next time they plan to fly?

Southwest's reported plan has some similarities to the proposed new airline based at BWI sponsored by Frank Lorenzo. The type of service offered would be very similar; at least initially the routes would be different. Mr. Lorenzo's operation, which awaits federal approval, would operate up and down the East Coast rather than across the country. They could be complementary. The concept has its attractions for BWI.

One concern is the impact of a fare war on USAir, the airport's major tenant. That airline has been struggling financially but shows signs of recovery. Competition from Southwest on shared routes would force USAir or other major airlines to match the lower fares.

Yet when Southwest has entered other regions, it has driven down fares but attracted so many more passengers that total revenues increased. Whether Southwest harms other airlines depends on how adept they are at adjusting to the new, enhanced competition.

Some airline analysts believe point-to-point service, as Southwest offers, will become more common than the hub concept favored by large airlines in which routes fan out from a regional center like BWI.

Either way, Southwest's arrival at BWI could be a boon for Maryland travelers who just want to get where they're going safely, comfortably and quickly without the frills.

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