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Southwest expanding TIA presence

The low-fare airline is expected to be Tampa's largest carrier by 2002, which means carving out more space for gates.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


TAMPA -- It's a nice kind of problem to have, for both airline and airport.

Southwest Airlines, the low-fare, laid-back, Texas-based carrier with the all-Boeing 737 fleet, has announced in recent months the addition of seven new departures daily from Tampa International Airport. Six of the flights will be to West Palm Beach, the seventh to Manchester, N.H. They are scheduled to begin early next year. This puts the airline on track to become the largest carrier at TIA possibly as early as next year and means TIA is going to have to scramble to make room.

"My guess is it could happen as early as 2001, but it will certainly happen by 2002, that Southwest will be boarding more passengers than either US Airways or Delta Air Lines," currently the airport's two largest carriers, said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

Southwest's passenger numbers have risen rapidly in the first nine months of 2000, much faster than either Delta's or US Airways'. From January through September, Southwest served 1.95-million passengers inbound and outbound, up from 1.53-million a year earlier, an increase of more than 27 percent.

During the same nine-month period, Delta's passenger numbers rose from 2.3-million to 2.4-million. US Airways remained relatively static at 2.4-million.

Southwest has perfected the art of the quick turnaround -- offloading passengers, baggage and trash and boarding new passengers, new baggage and snacks and drinks in about 20 minutes. This makes it possible for the airline to use each of its six gates at Airside A as often as 10 times a day.

"That's very high by industry standards," Miller said. "But that maxes them out at 60 flights a day. I called Southwest and pointed out that, at 54 flights, they were getting close to their magic number."

The most likely way the airport and the airline will resolve the matter to give Southwest maximum flexibility is to create eight gates within the space now taken up by six.

"We have designed all of our gates to accommodate (Boeing) 757 aircraft, which are a good deal larger than the 737s Southwest flies," Miller said. "Eight gates would give the airline a capacity for 80 flights daily, which is a pretty good cushion."

If a final decision to do this is made, Southwest would pay the cost of the construction.

"If Southwest becomes your largest airline, the economic well-being of the Tampa-St. Petersburg community will be very well served," said Jim Parker, an airline analyst for Raymond James & Associates. "Florida is very much a leisure market, and leisure travelers are the ones who seek out lower fares. The more markets you can reach with low-fare service, the better off you are."

While Southwest is faced with the same economic forces as other airlines and also is highly unionized, its employees are far more productive, which keeps the company's costs down, Parker said.

"There is a corporate culture that everyone is in this thing together," he said. "For example, in terms of hard hours, the hours pilots are actually flying, Southwest's average 70 a month against 47 for the majors."

Although Southwest's labor relations are usually smooth, fleet service workers are set to stage informational pickets today and Saturday in 55 airports, including Tampa International.

They will hand out leaflets charging the airline has failed to offer a fair contract for 5,300 ramp, provisioning and operations agents over 11 months of negotiations with the Transport Workers Union of America Local 555.

Southwest has never experienced a strike. The pickets will be the first since mechanics protested over a contract dispute in 1980, said Ed Stewart, a Southwest spokesman.

Last month, the airline unilaterally increased starting pay for ramp and provisioning agents from $7 an hour to $8.60 and maximum pay from $19 hourly to $20.50.

Southwest began flying to Tampa with 12 flights in January 1996. Next year's announced expansion means the airline will have more than quadrupled its service to TIA in five years of operations.

"Our pattern is to come in with a few flights and see how we grow," said Melanie Jones, a Southwest spokeswoman. "Florida has been very successful for us as a whole. Tampa is typical of the growth. We've seen comparable results in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. We are very happy in Florida."

-- Times staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report.

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