Director: Columbus Airport to take another look at Southwest Airlines

Columbus Airport director Mark Oropeza said today that Southwest Airlines might be a good fit for the city if it decides to expand routes after gobbling up low-fare competitor AirTran.

But it’s still too early to predict what will happen as the airlines merge over the next two years, said the airport director, who last talked briefly with Southwest two years ago at a conference.

“They were always on our list. So I’m sure we’ll bump ‘em back up there and go see if we can get in their doors again for some more visits,” Oropeza said a day after Dallas-based Southwest announced it plans to purchase Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran in a deal valued at $1.4 billion.

The purchase should be completed in the first half of next year, the airlines said, although it likely will take until 2012 before AirTran can be fully absorbed into the Southwest system.

The issue at the moment, Oropeza said, is that airports which typically covet Southwest don’t know what model it will use in the future. Until now, it has been a point-to-point airline, preferring that format over a hub-and-spoke system in which flights feed into large regional cities before flying to smaller destinations.

“First of all, I’d want to find out what they’re doing,” Oropeza said. “What you don’t want to do is go pitch them and not meet their model.”

AirTran, known for weekly fare sales, had developed Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport into a major hub for it, competing with Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, which serves Columbus with four to five daily flights.

“It’s going to be interesting just because the Southwest model, of course, is based on quick turnarounds,” the Columbus Airport director said. “Atlanta’s not a place where you can do a quick turnaround.”

Southwest’s expansion news comes less than three months after American Airlines’ re-entry into the Columbus market following a 15-year absence. The Fort Worth, Texas-based company offers two daily flights between Columbus and its primary hub in Dallas, where travelers can connect to other planes headed west.

American, which uses its American Eagle subsidiary airline to feed local passengers to Dallas, is doing well as it attempts to ramp us service, Oropeza said. Flights are nearly 60 percent filled, he said. But that compares to Delta running closer to 70 percent.

However, American’s numbers could jump beginning Friday. That’s when the airline takes over official government business in the majority of U.S. markets, including Columbus-Fort Benning, said Kathy Cargile, regional sales manager for American Eagle.

“When the military travels on official business they have to fly us because we’re the awarded carrier. So that’s very, very good for us,” said Cargile, who confirmed the one-year contract was awarded about a month ago.

Fort Benning typically issues about 33,000 airline tickets a year for soldiers and civilian workers heading to and from the installation. About 10,000 of those people fly through Columbus and the rest go to Atlanta, post officials have said.

“We would love to fill up the aircraft everyday with military traffic,” Cargile said of the Columbus market. “We understand that 60 percent of the business there in Columbus is Fort Benning business. So we are working diligently with the base and the commanders and the agencies to make sure they are aware that we are here to support the military.”

Roughly 100,000 people fly into and out of Columbus Airport each year. Since peaking at about 250,000 passengers in 1991 — with several airlines at the time — counts dropped below 200,000 in 1998 and fell under the 100,000 mark in 2005 before rebounding to the current level.