Reporting Michael Calhoun
ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – Southwest Airlines executives touched down in St. Louis for a day to make their pitch to businesses that Lambert has a robust offering of direct flights — and could see even more in the near future.
“What we’re hearing generally from the business community, I think, quite frankly, is that some people are more focused on the past in terms of what may have been lost and don’t really have the awareness of how much has happened since, for example, the TWA and American hubs went away,” said Executive Vice President Ron Ricks in an exclusive interview Thursday with KMOX’s Michael Calhoun.
“The bottom line is that St. Louis, compared to many other comparable markets in the United States of America, enjoys a very very good level of air service,” he said, adding, “it may not be perfect. It maybe could be improved. But you’re starting with a very solid foundation.”
Ricks said he’ll take suggestions for improvement back to the headquarters in Dallas.
Southwest, unlike the “legacy” carriers like American, United, U.S. Airways and Delta, does not have a hub system, instead focusing on point-to-point routes between cities.
St. Louis ranks within the top ten busiest markets for Southwest, with an offering of 95 daily flights at Lambert to 34 direct destinations. That’s 94,000 seats a week.
Those numbers could increase, Ricks said, dependent upon whether more local frequent flyers decide to tear up their former TWA allegiances and switch to Southwest. He also met with regional political leaders about how to jointly market St. Louis to both leisure travelers and businesses looking for a move.
But Southwest, he said, definitely sees potential for growth at Lambert. Concourse D, the now-mothballed former home for many TWA flights, is an avenue for easy and painless expansion.
“St. Louis is in a good situation compared to some other airports, in that we should be so lucky to need more space, because, if the need is there, it can be easily provided,” he said.
Lambert Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, in a separate conversation, noted that Southwest had “come around the bend” from E and that the airline’s continued growth was a reason the city hadn’t turned Concourse D into something else.
Boeing’s new, more fuel efficient “MAX” edition of the 737 aircraft, when delivered, will allow Southwest to fly further and farther. Routes to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and the northern tier of countries in South America are already on the airline’s drawing board.
“I would ask people in St. Louis to be patient,” Ricks told KMOX, “but, yes, ultimately there will be an ability to fly Southwest from St. Louis, on a connecting basis initially and someday we hope on a non-stop basis, to some valuable international destinations.”
But Southwest, as a company, has no plans to ever fly to Europe.
“We think that there’s really more opportunity in terms of total number of passengers and business travel and economic development to the south,” Ricks continued. “So even if we had a different airplane and we could fly to Europe, I don’t think we would do it.”
Lambert’s Hamm-Niebruegge said, of landing a flight to Europe: ”I do think we’re closer and certainly there are foreign carriers looking at it and saying this is a potential spot.”
Hamm-Niebruegge noted that about 260 people a day fly to somewhere in Europe out of STL. She believes that Lambert’s routinely offered incentives are similar to those employed by Austin to land a British Airways flight to London, although a financial guarantee from the St. Louis business community would also likely be necessary to seal a deal.
MAKING THE CONNECTION
Federal restrictions on the distance of non-stop flights out of Dallas’ Love Field, a provision known as the “Wright Amendment,” have benefited St. Louis as one of the allowed direct destinations. The amendment expires in 2014, but Ricks doesn’t anticipate Lambert losing any flights as a result.
The mixture of offerings — destinations, for example — may change, but no service will be reduced, he said.
Meantime, American Airlines’ proposed merger with U.S. Airways is of little concern to Southwest, Ricks said, and the company has no plans to join the Department of Justice’s efforts to block it.
Southwest only wants one concession out of the deal: divestiture of capacity at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. The two combined carriers would control 68% of departures there.
“One reason we’re so excited about having more slots at Washington’s national airport is because [for example] we were able to fly from St. Louis to Washington Reagan and the service has been phenomenally successful.”
Ricks said the bottom line is that Southwest sees “more upside potential” in St. Louis and the company wants to be an active partner in helping to increase demand for more service.
“We’re already in a good place, St. Louis is in a good place, Southwest is in a good place in St. Louis,” he said, “But we think there’s more to be done.”
Listen to the entire interview:
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