Southwest Airlines said yesterday that it would add a net total of nine round-trip flights to its network in November, bumping up capacity at a time when most major carriers have announced cuts and plans to reduce airplane fleets to contend with skyrocketing fuel costs.
But as oil prices hover close to $140 a barrel, Southwest, the biggest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, also said it would raise fares for the third time this year, increasing tickets by $5 to $10 for each leg of travel scheduled between Nov. 2 and Jan. 9.
Southwest promoted its gradual fare increases as more transparent and customer-friendly than the "a la carte" charges and fees that other airlines have levied in recent months.
"We would rather take these modest fare increases instead of instituting those fees and other charges," Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said.
In television and radio ads, Southwest has mocked other airlines for nickel-and-diming customers by charging for checked bags, snacks, pillows and extra legroom.
Southwest will continue to allow passengers to check up to two bags for free and serve complimentary soft drinks on its flights, Eichinger said yesterday.
That's in contrast to United Airlines, US Airways and American Airlines, all of which recently announced they would start charging $15 for a first checked bag. US Airways went a step further, announcing that even nonalcoholic beverages would now cost $2 a pop.
At BWI, Southwest shaved six flights for the duration of the year, to 166 daily departures. Southwest said BWI will gain an additional flight to Denver and a seasonal one to West Palm Beach, Fla., while a seasonal flight to Albuquerque, N.M., and another round-trip to Norfolk, Va., will be cut.
Nationwide, Southwest is cutting 31 poorly performing round trips while adding 40 new flights, primarily in growth markets such as Denver and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Southwest's fuel hedges have helped the airline to remain profitable and keep growing as other carriers are stuck paying close to the spot price for oil.
"They sit in sort of the catbird seat because of their fuel hedges," said Rick Seaney, an industry expert and founder of Dallas-based FareCompare.com. "But there's no doubt that they are stunting their growth."
All other airlines have raised their fares more frequently this year, so Southwest still seems like a relative bargain, Seaney added.
Southwest's fare increases vary by flight distance. Short-haul flights will see a $5 one-way increase, medium-haul flights will go up by $8 and long-distance flights by $10, Eichinger said.
For example, the lowest fare between BWI and Denver, now $149 one way, will jump to $159 for travel starting Nov. 2.
Southwest is cutting the most flights - nine - at Chicago's Midway Airport, the airline's second- biggest market.
Denver, where Southwest has grown rapidly this year as Frontier Airlines succombed to bankruptcy, will gain 20 new daily departures in November.