Southwest eyes growth from Dallas Love Field from 2014

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Southwest Airlines sees significant new opportunities out of its base of Dallas Love Field after October 2014, when a restriction on flights from the airport is lifted.

The carrier is currently only able to launch non-stop flights out of Love Field to other points in Texas and eight other states, due to legislation introduced in the 1970s to protect the then newly-built Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

The Wright Amendment will be repealed in October 2014. It currently limits Southwest's non-stop flights to Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

"We have substantial opportunities out of Love Field," says Tammy Romo, the carrier's senior vice president of planning at today's Deutsche Bank Aviation & Transportation Conference in New York.

Romo also emphasises a significant growth opportunity out of Houston Hobby Airport, where the airline is building a new international terminal and federal inspection services facility. The terminal is expected to open in 2015.

Southwest currently does not operate internationally but its subsidiary AirTran Airways, which it acquired in May 2011, flies to the Caribbean and Mexico. Southwest plans to integrate these operations with theirs and has said it plans to launch flights to the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America from Hobby when the new terminal opens.

"Obviously with our strong presence in Texas, we think we have significant opportunities to grow the route system out of Houston," says Romo.

The airline is in the process of transitioning AirTran's international flying over to Southwest, and has hired Amadeus to launch a reservations system that will allow Southwest to operate the international flights in 2014. Southwest currently uses Sabre while AirTran is on the Navitaire New Skies platform.

Southwest acquired AirTran's 88 717s and 52 737-700s when it bought the airline, and is in the process of converting AirTran's 737s to Southwest livery. Eleven of the 737s will be completed by the end of this year and the remaining 41 will transition from 2014, says Romo.

A Southwest spokesman clarifies that the 41 aircraft support AirTran's Puerto Rico and international operations and will transition to Southwest livery when its international reservations system is in place.

Southwest agreed in May to sublease the 88 717s operated by AirTran to Delta Air Lines. The first 717 will leave the fleet in August 2013 and all the aircraft will exit by end-2015. Before the subleasing deal was struck, the 717s had been scheduled to transition to Southwest's livery in 2013.

With the 717s leaving the fleet, Southwest has said it intends to extend a seat reconfiguration project it is rolling out across its 737-700s to its 737 Classics as well. It is also pushing back the retirement dates of these 737 Classics to allow it to backfill some of the 717s as it aims to keep capacity flat. The carrier has not decided on the retirement rate for the 737 Classics.

Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly has said the airline will likely retrofit a hundred 737 Classics with the additional seats under the seat reconfiguration programme called Evolve.

Romo says today that it "makes sense" to have the additional seats on the aircraft, but could not confirm the exact number of 737 Classics that will get the extra seats. "It's a good portion," she says.

The Evolve cabin retrofit project was first announced by Southwest in January 2012, and it expects to complete the retrofit on the 737-700s in the second quarter of 2013. Kelly has said the retrofitting of the 737 Classics will not meet this timeline. The retrofit involves adding an extra row of six seats each to 372 737-700s, taking the number of seats on each aircraft to 143 from 137.

Southwest's 737-300s have the same number of seats as the -700s pre-retrofit. Flightglobal's database shows that the airline has a fleet of 142 737-300s, with build dates ranging from the mid-1980s to late 1990s. Southwest also has a fleet of 21 737-500s, which have fewer seats on board.