Cover Story: Charlotte - no fly zone?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

It's the airline every city want to have serve their town, the king of low-fares, Southwest Airlines.

Charlotte, being a US Airways hub, has long had some of the highest airfares in the country.. and has long courted Southwest in an effort to bring prices down.

Now, the Dallas-based airline says no to Charlotte and yes to two of our neighbors.

Southwest has become the largest carrier in terms of passengers.  And cities make annual trips out to their headquarters to try to get them here.

In a city that prides itself on its airport it is the only airline Charlotte doesn't have and likely will never get.

It's always a party when Southwest Airlines comes to town.  Six years ago when they began service to Philadelphia, there were parties complete with a Ben Franklin look alike dancing down the concourse.

"Glad to see fares coming down. Something Philadelphia needs."

That's the reason for the celebrating.

When Southwest enters a market fares drop across the board--- competitors matching Southwest's pricing.  They call it "the Southwest effect".

It's why Charlotte, which over the years has suffered from some of the highest fares in the country, has long courted the Dallas-based low-fare carrier.

"I'd love to see them come to Charlotte. Always think competition is good.  It's good for all of us."

Mike Whitehead who runs Whitehead Associates, a management consulting firm and leadership development center in south Charlotte says landing Southwest here would help him and his clients.

"For us it would be a substantial savings for them.. which really would help our business because it makes it easier for people to get to us at a lower cost."

But those cheers aren't from Charlotte, rather Charleston and Greenville-Spartanburg.

Two cities Southwest announced it's going to begin serving next year effectively filling in a void in the southeast the carrier had between Raleigh and Jacksonville, Florida, markets it now serves.

Is this going to kill Charlotte's chances of getting Southwest, we asked Charlotte Aviation Director Jerry Orr.  "Clearly I think it means Southwest has no need to try to serve Charlotte."

Orr says Southwest Airlines tends to stay away from hub-cities like Charlotte where there can be congestion.

Choosing two airports with not a lot of traffic close to big population centers (Charlotte and Atlanta) they can peel off passengers from there and build traffic as well.

Will it affect us here?..

Says Orr, "I think there will be people that drive to Greenville Spartanburg for the fares. Just as today we have people that drive to Charlotte from Greenville Spartanburg for the service."

At an hour and a half away, it's a drive businessman Tom Lane will make.  "If it's $500 out of Charlotte and it's $189 out of Spartanburg I'm looking at it for sure. And I take it sometimes."

Southwest hasn't announced a starting date for service from Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston (next year some time).

And they've haven't said what cities they'll fly to, nor how much it'll cost.

But expect the fares to be dirt cheap.  Often the airline offers introductory fares as low as $29.

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