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Southwest Airlines takes on the bear in the North Woods

Airline: Southwest Airlines

Sector: Minneapolis/St Paul (MSP)–Chicago-Midway (MDW) and return

Flights: WN780/WN1510

Equipment: Boeing 737-700

 

Northwest Airlines (NWA) is notorious for protecting its MSP hub from competitive incursions with the ferociousness of a mother bear protecting her cubs. Over the last several years, American Trans Air, Midwest Airlines, AirTran, Frontier, and even mighty American Airlines, have initiated or expanded service at MSP, only to retreat to lick their wounds. NWA's dominance has resulted in a perception that Twin Cities travellers are paying fares that are excessively high. The high fares finally proved irresistible to an airline that is every bit as formidable a competitor as Northwest, but much more 'LUVable': Southwest Airlines (SWA). I experienced SWA's LUV first-hand, on its inaugural flight from MSP on Sunday, March 8, 2009.

Southwest Airlines

 PHOTO: JOE WOLF

Although this was SWA's first day of revenue service at MSP, it was obvious that personnel at the ticket counter had been trained in advance; the agent was able to issue my boarding pass without any problems. Southwest has leased space in the Humphrey Terminal, which is much more compact than the NWA-dominated Lindbergh Terminal on the other side of 12R/30L. I had to walk only about 50 steps between SWA’s ticket counter and Gate H7, and although the airport was surprisingly busy for a Sunday morning (most of the passengers appeared to be 'Spring Breakers' fleeing Minnesota for warmer climes), I was able to clear security within ten minutes.

Once I reached the gate, I was greeted by Southwest employees, some wearing stuffed 'Spirit Junior' 737 costumes. It’s an inside joke at Southwest that it takes four employees to change a light bulb: one to change the bulb, and three to design the T-shirt to commemorate the event (Airways Classics N° 3). Sure enough, employees were wearing two different T-shirt designs. Perhaps in deference to the early hour, the pre-flight ceremonies were very low key, with just a few brief comments, and a couple of chants led by the employees, before boarding.

Southwest Airlines

 PHOTO: JOE WOLF

It's an inside joke that it takes four Southwest employees to change a light bulb: one to change the bulb, and three to design the T-shirt that commemorates the event. SWA designed two T-shirts to commemorate its first service to the Twin Cities: one in red for airport personnel and one in white for out-of-town employees who came into MSP to help.


Southwest Airlines

PHOTO: JOE WOLF

Two Southwest employees greeted passengers in the lobby of the Humphrey Terminal. It looks like they're ready to take off, with assistance from 'Spirit Junior'.

 

Our aircraft was pushed back right on time, at 0700. To get the attention of their bleary eyed passengers, the flight attendants made the safety demonstration more humorous than usual, even by Southwest standards. Passengers were warned that Flight 780 would be a 'non-smoking, non-whining, non-complaining flight'. After pushback, we had only a brief taxi to Runway 12R, and had to wait for only two or three aircraft before it was our turn. Our aircraft’s light fuel load made our takeoff run short, and after rotation we climbed out steeply into the pre-dawn gloom, following the runway's extended centerline as we passed over the Minnesota River and Eagan, before we entered high clouds at the southeast end of the Twin Cities metro area.
Southwest Airlines

PHOTO: JOE WOLF

Southwest promoted the MSP inaugural in its February/March in-flight beverage menu, on cookies given to passengers on the first flight, and at media events around the Twin Cities.

After we reached our cruising altitude, the flight attendants came through the cabin, passing out drinks and peanuts, along with oatmeal toffee cookies imprinted with 'Minneapolis/St Paul here we come–Southwest'. We soon began our descent into the late winter murk. The ceiling at Midway was very low; we broke out of the clouds a few seconds before our touchdown on Runway 4R. After exiting the runway, there was a short taxi to gate B14. We pulled into the gate about 20 minutes earlier than the scheduled 0835, at least partly because we didn’t need to be de-iced before takeoff.

 

Southwest Airlines

PHOTO: JOE WOLF

N902WN is serviced at a damp MDW after operating Southwest's first MSP-MDW flight.

 

The low ceiling in Chicago persisted all day, and was accompanied by torrential rain and occasional lightning. I returned to the airport around 1430, 2½ hours before the departure of my return flight. Midway is experimenting with separate security lanes that separate families and 'expert travelers' from the masses. Like most Airways readers, I consider myself a 'road warrior', so I selected the expert lanes. Only one other person was in line ahead of me, so I was able to clear security quickly and painlessly.

I arrived at the airport early enough that I decided to try to take SWA’s 1500 flight to Minneapolis. When I reached the gate, the agent advised she would be able to book me on the earlier flight, but it was delayed because the inbound aircraft had diverted to Kansas City because of weather. Many other flights were severely delayed. Few people have more unpleasant jobs than gate agents working delayed flights, but Southwest’s agents seemed unusually patient with the long lines of passengers whose travel plans had been disrupted.

Around 1615, I told the gate agent I wished to be taken off the standby list for the 1500 trip, and would take the flight I was originally booked on, which was forecasted to leave a few minutes later than the scheduled 1700. Sure enough, boarding started about 15 minutes after it had been scheduled to depart. This flight would be nearly full; some of the passengers had originally been booked on O’Hare–MSP  flights that had been cancelled due to the severe weather. The door was closed at 1740, and it was a short taxi from gate B15 to a very wet Runway 22L. After rotation we were in the clouds very quickly, and it would remain cloudy until we reached southern Minnesota. During our time at cruising altitude, the flight attendants came through the cabin with drinks and peanuts, but sadly not the tasty cookies that had been provided on the outbound flight.

Southwest Airlines

PHOTO: JOE WOLF

A banner at MDW promotes Southwest's new flights to Minneapolis/St Paul.

 

Soon afterward, we began our descent for Runway 35, passing east of the Mall of America as we were on final approach. We landed at 1900, only 25 minutes late. After landing, we had to hold for a few minutes for another SWA 737 to push back, before we pulled into Gate H7. The Humphrey Terminal is so compact that I was in my car within five minutes after deplaning.

Southwest Airlines

PHOTO: JOE WOLF

The H7 gate podium before SWA's first revenue flight from the Twin Cities begins boarding.

 

Southwest Airlines and MSP wisely recognized that not even vote-hungry politicians could be enticed out of bed early on a Sunday morning, so they elected to have the formal 'MSP welcomes Southwest Airlines' ceremony at 1000 the following day, in the Humphrey Terminal lobby. The event was hosted by Jack Lanners, chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, the operator of MSP. MSP has been encouraging Southwest to come to the Twin Cities for many years, and he was very proud that his hard work had finally come to fruition. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, and Minneapolis Mayor R T Rybak made brief remarks, before Southwest Airlines President Gary Kelly wrapped up the ceremony. During his speech, Kelly mentioned several times that "love is all around us," an allusion to both Southwest's LUV stock symbol, and the theme song of the 1970s hit TV series The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was set in Minneapolis. Despite the dignitaries, the ceremony reflected Southwest’s informal corporate culture; it opened with loud rock music, and concluded with confetti showered on the audience.

Southwest Airlines

PHOTO: JOE WOLF

Southwest Airlines President Gary Kelly speaks to the media and SWA employees in the lobby of the Humphrey Terminal on March 9. Behind Kelly are (left to right) Metropolitan Airports Commission Chairman Jack Lanners, Minneapolis Mayor R T Ryback, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. At far left, Ginger Hardage and Chris Mainz from SWA's Corporate Communications Department make sure the ceremony runs smoothly.

 

Although Southwest enjoys tremendous brand awareness, its marketing department clearly recognizes how hard the battle for local customers will be. SWA made sure the first passenger to board the inaugural flight was a photogenic seven-year-old girl, whose father was taking her to see the dinosaurs at Chicago’s Field Museum, with a stop for deep dish pizza along the way, and the first flight was commanded by Jim Johnson, who grew up in the small town of Balaton, Minnesota, and the first officer was Jim’s son, Craig. Later in the day on Sunday, groups of SWA employees, some dressed in 'Spirit Junior' costumes, visited local Cub Foods stores, offering shoppers a chance to win two roundtrip tickets on Southwest in exchange for $5 or $10 donations to Second Harvest Heartland Food Bank. At the inaugural ceremony on Monday, more than two dozen pilots who reside in Minnesota were in attendance with their families, with some children holding hand-drawn 'I (heart) SWA' signs, which reminded the audience that Northwest and Sun Country are not the only airlines with employees who reside in Minnesota. These efforts resulted in extensive media coverage, including a glowing article on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Southwest Airlines

PHOTO: JOE WOLF

Capt Jim Johnson his son, Craig, flew Southwest's first revenue flight from the Twin Cities.

 

Southwest normally enters a new city with more than a dozen flights, to two or three cities. Perhaps in recognition of the tough competitive battle, and the weak economy, SWA has entered MSP with only seven daily flights, to one destination. In his remarks, Gary Kelly made it clear SWA would not add more flights, or more destinations, unless the first route is successful. We hope enough travellers will discover the friendliness of Southwest’s employees, and the convenience of the Humphrey Terminal, so there will be much more 'LUV' around the Twin Cities in the future.


(With thanks to Chris Mainz of SWA's Corporate Communications Department for his assistance in making this report possible.)

 

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