SOUTHWEST AIRLINES plans to expand into Florida early in 1996. Share prices of airlines already serving the leisure-dominated Florida market fell sharply with the news of Southwest's first expansion eastward since it established a presence at Baltimore/Washington Airport in September 1993.

Dallas, Texas-based Southwest will begin services to Florida in January 1996, with daily flights from Tampa to Baltimore/Washington, Nashville, New Orleans and St Louis and between Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, adding services to Birmingham in March.

Services from Orlando to Baltimore/Washington, Birmingham, Columbus, Fort Lauderdale, Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, New Orleans and St Louis will be added in April and May. By mid-1996, Southwest's Florida operation will have grown from 12 daily flights to 52, using ten new Boeing 737-300s.

Southwest says that Florida was a "huge hole" in its route system. Citing the "tremendous success" of its Baltimore/Washington bridgehead, the airline says that it expects its Florida operation to "...grow in a similar fashion to our other new city start-ups and strengthen boardings in other Southwest markets".

The stocks hit hardest by the news were those of Atlanta-based low-fare airline ValuJet and Delta Connection carriers Atlantic Southeast and Comair, which have substantial Florida operations. Delta says that it does not plan any changes with its regional affiliates, noting that the Florida market already has some of the lowest fares in the USA.

ValuJet says that the move was sooner than expected, but the airline does not expect to compete head-to-head with Southwest. Despite this reassurance, and posting a record performance for the second quarter, the Southwest announcement sparked a slide in ValuJet's stock price.

Source: Flight International