It is the news that other US carriers hoped never to hear. Southwest Airlines is about to take a bite out of the Big Apple and begin operating from New York.

Analysts and rival airlines have speculated about the possibility for years, but Southwest has deliberately avoided the New York market, citing severe air traffic control and ground congestion problems. But that reluctance changes from March when Southwest begins services from MacArthur Airport in Islip on Long Island, 70km (45 miles) from downtown Manhattan. Southwest will connect Islip with other major destinations on its system, offering travellers both point-to-point and connecting service. The carrier will begin with eight daily nonstop flights to Baltimore/Washington International Airport, two daily nonstop flights to Chicago's Midway and one daily flight to Nashville and Tampa, all on new Boeing 737-700s.

Joyce Rogge, Southwest's vice-president of marketing, says the carrier has opted to serve Islip to fill in its northeastern presence. Since 1993, the carrier has added Providence, Rhode Island, Manchester, New Hampshire, and Baltimore to its system.

Rogge says MacArthur draws from two counties on Long Island with a combined population of 3 million people, which equals the entire metropolitan Chicago market. Rogge says Southwest will be able to maintain its standard 20min turnaround time at Islip. "Whatever time we lose in the air [due to air traffic control problems], we can make up on the ground," she says. She points out that MacArthur is more accessible than airports closer to New York City.

Southwest expects to be profitable at Islip almost immediately. New desintations and additional frequencies from Islip will be added in the "not too distant future".

Sam Buttrick, aviation analyst at Paine Webber in New York, predicts Southwest will be successful in developing Islip as an alternative for Long Islanders. He does not expect it to attract much traffic from Manhattan, but believes that will be unnecessary.

Brian Harris, airline analyst for Salomon Smith Barney, suggests Southwest is flying into Long Island because the money is there. "The New York metropolitan area is the largest and richest aviation market probably in the world," he says. Harris expects Southwest will do "very well" in Islip, in part because business travel should be strong.

Harris predicts other airlines will have no option but to match Southwest's low fares, not just from Islip, but also from airports closer to New York City. So far, American Airlines and USAir Express have matched Southwest on flights to Chicago O'Hare and Baltimore, respectively, while only Air Tran Airways has matched Southwest on flights between New York LaGuardia and Chicago Midway. Low fares operator Delta Express, which also operates from Islip, believes seat reservations, which Southwest does not offer, and leverage from Delta frequent flier miles will help keep customers loyal.

Harris predicts Southwest will within five years launch nonstop transcontinental services from Islip. Rogge says there are no near-term plans to offer such services, although the airline operated an experimental nonstop flight between Oakland, California, and Baltimore last year.

Source: Airline Business