In a strategic move that puts it in head-to-head competition with the established majors and with low-fares rival JetBlue, short-hop specialist Southwest Airlines will begin its first transcontinental non-stop flights in September.

The service between Baltimore/Washington and Los Angeles international (LAX) airports will skew its average stage length of 750 miles (1,200km), a figure that has grown steadily but not dramatically. The move puts Southwest in direct rivalry with United Airlines for Washington and Los Angeles-area business fliers who prefer non-stops, and with JetBlue which has grown in transcontinental flights. It now flies between Long Beach, California, about 21 miles from LAX, and both New York and Washington Dulles, as well as between Ontario, another Los Angeles area airport, and New York.

Southwest chief executive James Parker told analysts that Southwest "had already said that we would not be adding a new city on to our routes network, so we are connecting the dots." Southwest is also adding non-stops between Chicago Midway and both Los Angeles and San Diego, California, which puts it in direct competition with its main rival at Midway Airport, American Trans Air (ATA). Midway is the focus city at which Southwest faces the keenest low-fare competition.

Although longer flights have the inherent advantages of lower unit costs, they present Southwest with a few challenges to its basic short-hop model: the airline offers limited food service and no in-flight entertainment, which in its all-coach configuration raises the risk of fidgety passengers. And as Southwest began increasing its limited food offerings on longer flights over the past five years, it found it had to compensate for more waste and slightly more terminal time.

Parker also says that capacity should grow by 5% over the year, and 8% in the third quarter. It will take four Boeing 737-700s out of the 19 deliveries it had deferred.

Source: Airline Business