Written by: Larry Zimpleman and Jay Byers
Business and leisure travelers at the Des Moines International Airport have long complained about high fares and limited service caused by the absence of a low-fare carrier bringing competitive fares into the market. Leakage of passengers to airports in Omaha and Kansas City has been a persistent problem.
For years, the greater Des Moines business community and the Des Moines airport have attempted to convince Southwest Airlines — the premier low-fare carrier in the United States — to serve Des Moines. Finally, on Sept. 30, due to the efforts of many, including Gov. Terry Branstad, airport Executive Director Don Smithey, members of the business community and the Des Moines Airport Authority’s board and staff, Southwest initiated service to Des Moines.
It is now up to the traveling public to use it, or risk losing it.
And there is a lot to lose.
Southwest is the largest low-fare carrier in the United States, and it is the largest airline based upon numbers of domestic passengers. Southwest flies only passenger-comfortable Boeing 737 aircraft, and it has approximately 570 of the airplanes serving 77 destination cities. Southwest’s points/reward program for passengers is called “Rapid Rewards,” and bags fly free on Southwest flights.
The commencement of Southwest’s service has the potential to become one of the more important developments for Des Moines and Iowa in many years. Why? The “Southwest Effect” — a widely known phenomenon that occurs when Southwest enters a given market — fares go down and air service goes up. This is a result of competition.
Southwest’s entrance in a market elicits a competitive response from the other carriers serving the market. It has also been demonstrated at airports in which Southwest entered the market that passengers increased for other airlines in the market, too — not just for Southwest.
Other tangible effects have followed for communities served by Southwest, such as a better business climate resulting in new businesses locating in the area, retaining existing businesses, and more conventions choosing their community for events.
Here are two recent examples:
• Southwest began service at Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., Airport and at Charleston, S.C., Airport in March of 2011. Prior to Southwest’s entry into the Greenville-Spartanburg market, passenger traffic had decreased with passengers traveling to other airports — similar to Des Moines’ experience. In the first year of Southwest’s service to Greenville-Spartanburg, passenger traffic increased 40 percent month after month. Fares decreased by 14 percent.
The Greenville-Spartanburg Airport’s CEO stated that Southwest “was absolutely a game-changer” for their airport, adding that “a thriving airport is a vital piece of the puzzle that a community needs to retain business, create new jobs and improve the quality of life for its residents.”
• Charleston experienced double-digit increases in passenger traffic in each of the 12 months following the Southwest start up there. A representative of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce reported that all airlines at Charleston experienced increased passenger volumes. The convention and visitors market also saw a significant increase, noting that some convention planners only consider cities with Southwest service.
Even though Southwest has only been operational in Des Moines since Sept. 30, upon its announcement earlier this year, we began experiencing lower fares among carriers, larger aircraft serving the market and increased passenger traffic — up 8.5 percent since Jan. 1, 2012.
Indeed, the Des Moines airport may be on the way to serving 2 million passengers this year, a goal never before reached at our airport. Competition works.
Two daily flights to Chicago’s Midway Airport now enable passengers to easily connect to many other Southwest destinations. The expectation is that as Des Moines’ passenger traffic grows, Southwest will institute additional destinations from Des Moines. Southwest will make the decision whether to continue to expand in Des Moines based upon its passenger traffic at our airport.
To ensure that we keep Southwest service in Des Moines, the traveling public must “use it, or lose it.”
Let’s “fly Des Moines,” support Southwest and our other carriers, and let the “Southwest Effect” begin.