Southwest Airlines looks for spark from expansion at Dallas Love Field

By David Koenig, AP

DALLAS–When Southwest Airlines recently introduced a new paint job for its planes, a senior executive joked that at 43 years old and being from Dallas, it was time for the airline to get a face-lift.

At middle age, Southwest is the fourth-largest U.S. airline by traffic, setting records for profits and enjoying a stock-price rally. But it wants more. Most of 2014 has been spent trying to regain the dazzling growth of its earlier years.

On Monday, Southwest gets some help. It will launch its first long-distance flights from its home base at Dallas Love Field to seven cities across the country, with eight more destinations next month. Such flights were prohibited until now by a longtime law that protected Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport by limiting flights from Love Field to a few nearby states.

Southwest will go head-to-head with Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines, which flies to most of those same 15 cities from DFW Airport. There will also be a new competitor at Love Field: Virgin America, whose swashbuckling founder, Richard Branson, is flying in for the occasion.

CEO Gary Kelly says bookings for the new flights are strong, and demand could outstrip seats. He believes the Love Field expansion presents ��very significant growth opportunities for us.�� Already this year, Southwest has started its first-ever international flights to Mexico and the Caribbean and grown in New York and Washington.

Southwest was once a legendary growth story. From three planes in 1971, it grew to 70 by 1985, and was flying more than 400 planes by the middle of last decade. But aside from the US$1.4 billion purchase of AirTran Airways in 2011, Southwest Airlines Co. has hardly grown in recent years. Instead it has focused on meeting profit-margin goals to satisfy Wall Street.

On-time performance, once a hallmark, has slipped badly. In the most recent 12-month period, only 71 percent of Southwest’s flights arrived on time, last among the largest U.S. airlines, according to government figures. Airline executives thought they could squeeze in more flights with no new planes, but the move backfired, resulting in delays and missed connections. Recently, Southwest tweaked its schedule to allow more time between flights.