Northwest Florida likely Southwest’s only new market in 2010

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Southwest Airlines appears unlikely to add new destinations to its network next year beyond its already-announced plans to launch flights from a new airport near Panama City, Florida.

"We are able to add one new city in 2010, in a very low-risk way for Southwest Airlines, and of course, that's Panama City Beach," carrier CEO Gary Kelly said today during the Next Generation Equity Research Airlines Conference.

Kelly cautions that the airline's 2010 plans are "fluid", noting that the Southwest schedule has only been published through May of 2010 and the Dallas-based operator is working on its schedule for June through August of next year.

The airline does intend to launch two daily flights to four destinations in May from the new Florida facility, the Northwest Florida Beaches International airport.

Southwest has not announced which cities it will serve from its seventh Florida destination, but the carrier will take advantage of a three-year revenue guarantee from The St. Joe Company to launch the routes.

St. Joe is the Florida real estate developer that donated the property for the new airport, which will replace the existing Panama City-Bay International airport.

While the carrier prepares to launch new Florida flights, Southwest remains doubtful about a rebound in business travel next year.

"Business travel still lags," Kelly says. "I don't know that I'm comfortable reporting that we've seen any improvement in that market. I don't think it's gotten worse in the last several months."

Southwest still has an interest in adding longer-haul international destinations in the next five to 10 years, says Kelly, and the carrier is also examining near-international destinations in the short term.

"How we serve those markets, we don't know yet," he says of far international markets.

In the meantime, the advertising campaign highlighting that it does not charge passengers for their first or second checked bag has been "immensely successful" and has driven traffic growth at the low-cost operator, Kelly says.