US and SW continue to Battle for Philadelphia Market


Mar 8, 2006
Southwest stretching wings in US Airways hub
Dawn Gilbertson
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 30, 2006 12:00 AM

PHILADELPHIA - The bright blue planes with the red bellies aren't the fixtures they are at Sky Harbor International Airport, the ticket counter just a fraction of the size.

Southwest Airlines may not be as in-your-face in Philadelphia as it is in Phoenix, but the nation's leading discount airline is a definite player, a familiar and fast-growing rival to the new US Airways.

Southwest began service at Philadelphia International in May 2004 with 14 daily departures. It now has quadruple that amount and is looking to add many more. This month, it announced plans for seven additional flights, including to two new cities. It has expanded in Philadelphia faster than in any other new market.

"We don't intend to be small for long," said John Minor, Southwest's Philadelphia station manager. "We intend to grow much larger than we are."

The airline snared 8.2 percent of the passengers boarding planes in Philadelphia last year, up from 3.5 percent in 2004. The biggest chunk of the gains came from US Airways. The market share for the Tempe-based airline fell nearly 3.1 percentage points.

Still, US Airways' continuing dominance in Philadelphia is clear: Its market share totaled 64 percent last year. The airline has 444 daily departures from Philadelphia, vs. 58 for Southwest.

In contrast, the market share in Phoenix of the combined America West-US Airways is 49 percent, to Southwest's 29 percent. US Airways has 311 daily flights, Southwest about 200.

Minor admits that the best scenario for Southwest would have been for the old US Airways to go out of business or shrink dramatically in Philadelphia, distinct possibilities before the merger with America West surfaced last spring.

Southwest had driven US Airways largely out of Baltimore after it rapidly ramped up service there in the mid-1990s.

When the airline entered Philadelphia, it told airport officials it would take as many 25 gates if they were available, Minor said. In Southwest's turn-planes-around-as-quick-as-you-can model, that equates to 250 daily flights, more than the airline has in Phoenix or in any other city.

It certainly wasn't the only airline with contingency plans should US Airways die.

US Airways, of course, survived. The merged airline, America West-US Airways debuted in late September, with new management and $2.5 billion in cash. And far from retreating in Philadelphia, it is plowing millions into its operation there, even growing internationally.

"We've got a tough fight," said Minor, who worked for US Airways for years before joining Southwest in 1999. "I think there's room for both of us to live here."

Rivals redux

The America West executives running the new US Airways are all too familiar with Southwest. They are fond of saying they successfully have competed with it for years in Phoenix and Las Vegas and will do the same thing in the US Airways hubs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and, when the time comes, Charlotte, N.C.

Scott Kirby, the US Airways executive vice president, held the same title at America West. He said the new US Airways has more advantages over Southwest in Philadelphia than it did in Phoenix. The airline is significantly larger, has more international service and flies non-stop to countless business-travel markets in the region.

"A lot of Philadelphia business travelers need to fly to small markets up and down the East Coast that Southwest doesn't service," he said. "They need to fly internationally, and they want to be in a single frequent-flier program."

He added, "Those customers are going to tend to choose US Airways, if for no other reason than Southwest can't meet their needs."

He said Southwest also faces the daunting challenge of snagging more gates in Philadelphia. It currently has eight.

"It is a very constrained airport," Kirby said. "It will be a harder place for them to grow."

Grab for gates

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly repeatedly has said gate space is a challenge in Philadelphia and that the airline aggressively works with the airport to find more.

A game of musical gates is under way with the bankruptcies of Delta and Northwest, providing potential vacancies, Southwest believes. It has its eye on four Delta gates it plans to turn into five gates.

Charles Isdell, director of aviation in Philadelphia, said that it won't happen overnight, but there is the possibility of gate relocations and other moves to accommodate the nation's largest discount carrier.

Minor sees Philadelphia eventually becoming a megastation, Southwest's designation for cities with more than 100 departures a day. Phoenix, Chicago and Las Vegas are the Texas-based airline's largest megastations, each with 200-plus flights a day.

"There's a huge population here that wants relatively inexpensive fares," Minor said.

As with all cities Southwest enters, the airline's low fares stirred up new demand in Philadelphia as well as luring passengers from other airlines.

"They brought out a whole new population of customers that I guess were just staying home before," Isdell said.

Stories abound of travelers from outside the city driving to Philadelphia to catch a Southwest flight. The New York Times did a feature about New York-area residents driving two hours to save money on a flight. Southwest doesn't serve the three major airports in metropolitan New York, just Islip on Long Island.

Falling fares

In the first full quarter of Southwest's operation in Philadelphia, airfares fell 15.8 percent across the board, more than in any other city, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. US Airways, of course, matched on routes where the airlines compete.

Fans of Southwest wish it served more cities non-stop from Philadelphia so fares would drop. US Airways fliers can pay $1,000 round trip for a last-minute flight from Philadelphia to Buffalo. The most Southwest charges between Baltimore and Buffalo, the same distance, is $198 roundtrip.

"My biggest disappointment is some of the markets they're not in, like Minneapolis and Detroit," said John Esaia, who lives in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia and flies about five times a year.

Jane Pond isn't enamored. The retired emergency-room nurse from Philadelphia has watched the reality-television show featuring Southwest and decided it's not her style.

"I would never fly them because I really want to have a seat. I want to be able to upgrade (to first class)," the 61-year-old frequent flier said.

Pond said Southwest's fares from Philadelphia to Manchester, N.H., where her niece lives, are cheaper than US Airways'. Southwest round-trip fares on the route range from $78 to $198 plus tax; US Airways, $78 to several hundred dollars.

Still, no sale for Pond.

"It's just not worth it to me."