Southwest and Virgin America squeeze into Love Field

Dallas Love Field is about to see a boom in flight operations when the Wright Amendment is lifted this October, allowing airlines to fly anywhere in the USA if they can find a gate.

Under the deal reached to lift the amendment, the airport is capped at 20 gates or just one more than the 19 operational gates prior to its modernisation programme. All the gates are accounted for with two going to Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, 16 to Southwest Airlines and two to Virgin America.

Source: Corgan

Source: Corgan

Those gates are hot commodities. Southwest and Virgin America, after a very public campaign to win two gates released by American Airlines as a condition to its merger with US Airways, plan to push almost 10 flights a day through their respective gates with nearly 45 new flights planned for the airport by April 2015.

Hometown Southwest plans the highest utilisation with about 9.6 aircraft turns per gate to support 153 peak day flights, the Dallas Morning News recently reported. This is higher than the utilisation at many of its busiest stations, including Denver International with 8.8 turns, Houston Hobby with 8.5 turns and Baltimore/Washington International with 7.4 turns, its website shows.

“Southwest has always operated with high gate utilisation, employing gates at our larger stations at a much higher rate than the US industry norm,” says the carrier. “To support the changes planned for our Dallas Love Field operation this autumn, our extensive preparations have touched employees, processes, ground equipment and flight scheduling.”

The airline has developed new contingency plans and processes for irregular operations that include moving aircraft off gates to “maintain our turn efficiencies”, it adds.

Southwest did not comment on how its recent poor operational performance could impact operations at Love Field, especially during the summer thunderstorms and winter ice storms that can plague Dallas. The airline had the worst on-time performance among US carriers in June with only 66.8% of flights arriving within 15min of schedule, Department of Transportation (DOT) data shows.

Jonathan Massey, a principal with the architecture firm Corgan that designed the new terminal at Love Field, says the facility was designed to be extremely efficient processing passengers and luggage in order to maximise gate utilisation and facilitate quick aircraft turns.

“The maximum limit of gate utilisation is dependent upon airline and airport operational issues,” he says. “The usual regulators of the frequency of gate utilisation are both the speed at which the airline can onload and offload passengers and baggage, and the level of airfield and airspace congestion.”

He adds that it is not unusual for a narrowbody aircraft operator on domestic routes to achieve 10 or more turns per gate.

In other words, 9.6 turns per gate is entirely possible – it may just be tight.

Virgin America also plans a tight schedule for its Love Field gates. It will operate 16 peak day flights – or eight turns per gate – to Los Angeles, New York LaGuardia, San Francisco and Washington National by April 2015. This could increase to 18 or more flights when it announces a start date for planned service to Chicago O’Hare.

“The phased ramp up of our Love Field schedule from 13 October 2014 to 29 April 2015 will allow our team time to identify potential operational issues and determine the best course of action to minimise guest impacts during irregular operations,” says the Burlingame, California-based carrier.

Delta and United will share two gates leased by the latter from October. Delta operates up to five flights per day to Atlanta and United up to seven flights per day to Houston Intercontinental, Innovata schedules show. This leaves the two gates with just six turns each, the least of any gate at Love Field.

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