washingtonpost.com > Business > Local Business

Southwest Airlines feeling squeezed out at National Airport

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Southwest Airlines is faltering in its attempt to gain a foothold at Washington's Reagan National Airport.

On Monday, the low-cost, Texas-based carrier asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to force US Airways and Delta Air Lines to auction off 14 landing and takeoff slots at the airport to the highest bidder in a public sale.

In August, US Airways agreed to trade 140 flight slots at New York's La Guardia Airport in exchange for 42 slots at National owned by Delta. In February, the Federal Aviation Administration said the government would approve the deal if the two airlines agreed to give up the 14 slots at National along with 20 at La Guardia.

In its own filings late on Monday, US Airways said it had agreed to transfer five slots at National Airport to JetBlue Airways. Additionally, US Airways and Delta, in a joint statement, said they would not go forward with the flight swap deal if regulators pushed them to give up more slots.

Southwest, which has unsuccessfully sought a presence National for years, is worried that Delta and US Airways are being allowed to shut Southwest out of the bidding process for the slots.

"They ought to simply be auctioned off to the highest bidder," said Robert Kneisley, associate general counsel for Southwest.

A Department of Transportation spokesman declined to comment on the dispute, saying the matter is still pending before regulators. The deal could take effect later this year, if approved.

US Airways has said the slot swap would help the airline boost its takeoffs and landings at National airport by 22 percent. In August, US Airways has said that it will offer service to National from eight cities as a result of the deal. The cities include Birmingham, Ala.; Islip and Ithaca, N.Y.; Little Rock, Ark.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Pensacola and Tallahassee, Fla.; and Savannah, Ga.

Rick Seaney, chief executive of Farecompare.com, said Southwest would bring "absolutely cheaper prices." He said Southwest could be a threat to other airlines by using the foothold at National to lower the prices of tickets on nonstop flights between Washington and other big cities such as Chicago.

Seaney said new competition from Southwest in recent years has driven down prices in Denver and Minneapolis, two strongholds of competing carriers.

"That's the Southwest Effect," Seaney said.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company