Southwest restructures network

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Low-cost player will add six new routes in Denver, where it will take on ailing Frontier and United Airlines

Southwest Airlines plans its largest ever schedule change this May as part of a broad network refocusing that chief executive Gary Kelly sees as vital to his goal of increasing revenues by attracting more business flyers.

Bill Owen, Southwest's lead planner, says it is the largest single schedule change in terms of the number of markets impacted, with 81 roundtrip routes changed - 51 with reduced service and 30 with new or increased frequencies. Denver will see the largest increase with six new routes and 18 additional flights.

This will certainly crimp the recovery efforts of Denver-based Frontier Airlines. Southwest's additions include the very types of business-oriented routes that Frontier has refocused on as it pulls back on Mexico service. These include flights from Denver to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Jose and St. Louis.

southwest wing

In the past, Frontier has said it can co-exist peacefully with other carriers. But the Southwest push, accompanied by aggressive new marketing and advertising campaigns that tout its revised and more customer-friendly boarding process, will challenge Frontier and major incumbent United, which also has a hub at Denver. Frontier has already issued a first quarter profit warning.

Kelly sees a wider challenge, noting "concern" about slowing economic growth. He says Southwest aims to build its schedule around higher demand markets.

Consultant Mike Boyd, who is based near Denver, sees a larger trend emerging from the Southwest schedule changes. The spring schedule, says Boyd, shows Southwest repositioning itself "to capture more cross-flows over Denver, instead of Phoenix and Las Vegas". Although the carrier's network remains heavily point-to-point, it is carrying increasing amounts of connecting traffic. The repositioning, says Boyd, moves Southwest "to some degree from price-based flying into more focus on interconnecting large business centres".

Although no Southwest market loses service in the restructuring, Orlando and Baltimore/Washington will see a decrease. The ­airline is also reducing capacity in the northeast region.