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AFTER THE ATTACK

Southwest Fliers Welcome Routine Trip

Airlines: Profitable low-cost carrier says it plans no cuts in staff or flights as rivals struggle to stay solvent.

September 18, 2001|ALEX PHAM and DAVID STREITFELD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ABOARD SOUTHWEST AIRLINES FLIGHT 116 — The flight attendants have stowed their usual sense of humor, but otherwise this 65-minute hop up the coast to San Jose from Los Angeles is what no one was anticipating: routine.

In the wake of last week's terrorism, passengers on Southwest Flight 116 were pleasantly surprised Monday by how uneventful their trip was. But they remained apprehensive about the future.

"Today was fine, but we'll just have to see," said Kelly Klaus, an intellectual property lawyer who makes this trip frequently.

Keeping business travelers such as Klaus happy is critical to Southwest's renegade strategy.

Flight 116, the first of 14 scheduled Southwest flights from LAX to San Jose on Monday, took off on time. So did the vast majority of Southwest flights, spokeswoman Melanie Jones said from Dallas. On Sunday, the airline said it flew 98% of its normal flights, and 97.6% were on time.

In the wake of last week's terrorist hijackings and the resulting two-day shutdown of U.S. air travel, nearly all major airlines have announced sharp cuts in capacity and staffing, and they say that without major help from the government they may have no alternative but bankruptcy.

One exception is Southwest Airlines Co., the nation's seventh-largest carrier, which plans no reductions in staffing or flight schedules.

Southwest has long been an anomaly. The airline has been profitable every year since 1973. Southwest is a short-haul, low-fare carrier that uses more of a point-to-point system than the hub-and-spoke approach favored by UAL Corp.'s United Airlines and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines. It flies between 58 cities, including seven in California.

"They're the least impacted by what happened last week," said Jeff Dabbs, an analyst with Kercheville & Co. in San Antonio. "Their balance sheet is in better shape than other airlines'. They can withstand some extra expenses."

Until the new airport security requirements are fully implemented, it is unclear how much trouble travelers are willing to put up with for short commuter flights.

On Monday Klaus and 34 other passengers showed up at Los Angeles International Airport as much as three hours early for this 6:15 a.m. flight. That turned out to be much earlier than necessary. The workaholics hauled out their laptops, while everyone else just dozed at the gate.

Joe Brunsman, a construction manager for the Beck Group, takes this trip twice a week, moving between a Bay Area building site and his home in Torrance. He doesn't have many options. No one can telecommute to a construction site. He wants to be home at least once in the middle of the week so he can put his children to bed.

"Whatever it takes, if it's a matter of making it home safely to see my kids, I'll do it," Brunsman said. "I'll be here five hours if I have to."

Another passenger, Kurt Fry, is a microchip salesman for Cirrus Logic. He lives in L.A. and works much of the time in Silicon Valley. He also feels his travel options are limited.

Driving? He scoffed.

"It's more dangerous, in my opinion, than flying, even taking everything into account," he said. "At the airport, I can at least check my e-mail and do some work."

Analyst Dabbs said many of Southwest's destinations are "secondary airports that wouldn't be a target of a terrorist group"--something that might be reassuring to nervous travelers.

Still, he's concerned enough about discretionary travel to cut his Southwest earnings estimates this year from 70 cents a share to 62 cents--and has sliced 10% off his estimates for next year. But as the overall stock market plunged and airline stocks collapsed, Dabbs repeated his "buy" on the stock.

Southwest closed Monday at $13, down $4.12, or 24%, on the New York Stock Exchange. On a day when some airlines lost more than twice as much, that was a relatively good showing.

Spokeswoman Whitney Brewer said Southwest's reservations Monday were only "a little reduced" from normal.

Just about the only thing that wasn't normal Monday was the banter among the flight attendants, a tradition on Southwest. Flight attendants often prompted laughs during their flights, with remarks such as, "We will be serving meatloaf today, which you can use as a flotation device."

But on Flight 116, said Klaus, the lawyer, "there was a dramatic difference in tone. . . . The attendants are usually pretty jovial."

Even the most hardened air warriors are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, particularly for brief flights whose main draw has been flexibility, last-minute changes, paperless tickets and the ability to walk right up to the gate.

If Flight 116 is typical, however, at the moment many business travelers are somewhere between feeling hopeful that things aren't as bad as they might be and resigned that they will have no choice.

Matt Thompson, a bankruptcy consultant who lives in Santa Monica and commutes every week to San Jose, falls in the second category. It usually takes him three hours door to door.

"Today, it'll take me four or five," he said.

"I looked into driving, taking the train, the bus. But everything takes between nine and 11 hours. On the East Coast, there are viable alternatives. Here, you really have no choice."

Flight 116 lands at 7:08 a.m., at the beginning of on a cloudy morning in San Jose. It is 12 minutes early.

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