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Southwest plans to fly to San Francisco again

February 10, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Southwest Airlines Co. will resume flights to San Francisco this fall after a six-year absence because changes at the city's airport have cut aircraft delays and reduced costs.

Southwest will return to the city "in a meaningful way" in early fall, the airline said Friday. No details were released on which cities Southwest might fly to from San Francisco.

Before it left San Francisco International Airport in March 2001, Southwest had 14 daily flights from the airport with nonstop service to San Diego and Phoenix.

Southwest is No. 3 in passenger boardings at Los Angeles International Airport. It also serves the airports in Burbank, Santa Ana and Ontario. It serves the Bay Area with flights to Oakland and San Jose.

San Francisco International "has improved operationally and is a more cost-efficient airport, and Southwest is a far larger airline than it was in 2001 and better able to support this type of operation," Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said in a statement.

Southwest's profitability is based in part on minimizing the time its planes are on the ground. The Dallas-based airline, which got its start by focusing on small airports with low costs, has turned its attention to larger ones such as Washington Dulles, Philadelphia and Denver in recent years.

"If it doesn't knock them off their schedule, it's a rich market and probably worthwhile," said Ray Neidl, a Calyon Securities USA Inc. analyst in New York. "If the problems have been fixed, it's logical for them to go back."

When Southwest returned to Denver last year after a 20-year absence, the airline said its cost to board each passenger there would be about $9. The average cost across the company's system is about $5, Southwest said.

Southwest's readiness to take on higher-cost airports is a sign of Kelly's leadership, Neidl said. Kelly became Southwest's CEO in 2004 after serving as chief financial officer since 1989.

"He's willing to do a few things that they weren't willing to do before," Neidl said.

Southwest is the only major U.S. airline to remain profitable every quarter since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Southwest will probably restart San Francisco service with at least 14 flights and won't reduce flights at other Bay Area airports, Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said.

Southwest shares fell 1 cent Friday to $15.15.

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