Feisty and unconventional Southwest Airlines Co. will celebrate its fifth anniversary in Philadelphia on Saturday with balloons, free food, and a plane pull at Philadelphia International Airport to benefit the Ronald McDonald House charities.
The nation's largest low-fare carrier, Southwest invigorated travel when it came here in 2004, reducing fares on routes where it competed, particularly with US Airways Group Inc., the region's dominant airline.
Dallas-based Southwest expanded rapidly in its early years. Growth has slowed now because of the economy.
John Minor has been Southwest's station manager in Philadelphia since the airline arrived. He reflects on Southwest's growth, rival US Airways, and $300 million in improvements to Terminals D and E, where Southwest has its gates.
Question: What has been Southwest's growth in Philadelphia?
Answer: We started with 14 flights to six cities. We currently operate 67 a day to 20 destinations. The first year was huge growth. We quickly went from 14 daily flights to 28 in July 2004 and 42 by that October.
Q: Why did Southwest come to Philadelphia?
A: In May 2004, we saw a real chink in the armor of US Airways. They were getting ready to file for bankruptcy a second time. We saw big opportunities for Philadelphia. Our growth hasn't materialized at the speed we originally thought it would.
A: A lot of it had to do with the economy, and certainly US Airways' getting healthier. Southwest's coming in increased the competition and made US Airways see, "Hey, if we want to retain this place as one of our hubs, we're going to have to do a better job of getting people in and out, the baggage meltdowns and all that." US Airways has obviously done a better job.
Q: Has Southwest dropped any routes here?
A: Yes, we pulled out of Hartford, Conn. We still fly to Oakland, Calif., and Los Angeles, but we don't fly nonstop. The Oakland flights stop in Denver. Service to Los Angeles stops either in Phoenix or Las Vegas.
Q: What is Southwest's role in the $45 million fan-shaped extension at the end of Concourse E?
A: We are acting as the general contractor. We are adding seven gates for aircraft. If you add those seven to our existing nine gates, that will give us 16 gates available. We are posting a February 2010 opening.
Q: Will you use all 16 gates?
A: I don't think so, given the economy. Two or three years ago, we envisioned growing this station to that size. But things have changed economically in the country and the demand for travel has fallen off. We'll probably utilize at least 12 gates.
Q: Do you envision Southwest eliminating any routes in Philadelphia due to the recession?
A: We're solid all the way through August. I know the company is concerned about the traditionally slow period right after Labor Day until Thanksgiving. Flights that are operationally inefficient and aren't pulling in customers, potentially we'll look at reducing those. We will not cut any routes, no destinations. It would just be a reduction in flight frequencies.
Q: In August, Southwest will begin service to Boston from Chicago and Baltimore. Might Southwest one day fly to Boston from Philadelphia?
A: Wouldn't that be nice! I can't speak to that . . . I could see something like that happening. We tout Manchester, N.H., as an alternate for Boston. We have a lot of folks who use that. You've got to be careful about increasing the service into Boston and then potentially pulling down the service into Manchester.
Q: How will the $300 million renovation and expansion to Terminals D and E benefit passengers?
A: It's one-stop shopping. Bags will get on airplanes more efficiently. The D-E connector building allows freedom to walk from Concourses A to E and go through security only once. The customer experience will be greatly enhanced with all the new shops.
Q: What is planned on Saturday for Southwest's fifth anniversary?
A: We will have balloons and lots of employees interacting with customers, giving away Southwest prizes and gifts. We'll have drinks, cookies, and snacks. Between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., 16 corporate teams will raise money for Ronald McDonald House, our corporate charity, in an airplane tug-of-war. Teams will pull a Boeing 737 with a tow rope 50 feet. The winner gets round-trip tickets anywhere Southwest flies.
Q: When Southwest expands again in Philadelphia, where might the airline fly?
A: We might look into doing some nonstop service back to the West Coast. If we can make it profitable, we might start serving Los Angeles and Oakland again with nonstop service. Maybe going to Seattle. For the most part now, it's increasing the frequencies to cities we currently fly to. We could add some additional frequency to Denver. The economy really dictates that.
Job: Philadelphia station manager, Southwest Airlines Co.
Birthplace: Omaha, Neb., grew up in Burbank, Calif.
Career: Joined Southwest in 1999 after 24 years at US Airways Group Inc. and predecessor, PSA Airlines.
Personal: Resides in West Grove, Pa., with wife, Kate, and son, Chase, 4.
Major challenges: Expanding Southwest from 14 daily flights to 42 in first four months here. Also hired and trained 150 employees.
Hobbies: Golf, racquetball, running.
Management style: Personal and very hands on. Toughest part is delegating.