'Southwest Effect' Unlikely To Lower CLT Airfares
Frequent travelers are aflutter at the prospect of boarding a Southwest flight out of Charlotte. The airline has a reputation for good customer service and low prices. Southwest Airlines is buying AirTran, which already operates in Charlotte. But the change Southwest announced late last week is more branding than anything else. AirTran's planes out of Charlotte will get the Southwest logo, but still fly the same routes to Atlanta, Baltimore and Orlando. From the customer perspective, "I don't think it'll make a lot of difference," says Charlotte Aviation Director Jerry Orr. "AirTran is also a low-fare carrier - actually lower than Southwest, so clearly you won't see what people refer to as the "Southwest Effect" where airfares are all of a sudden gonna go down here." In fact, fares are just as likely to go up says independent airline analyst Bob Herbst, who runs the website airlinefinancials.com. The average domestic fare out of Charlotte is around the middle of the pack nationwide. But when you look at what people are paying per mile for those tickets, Herbst says Charlotte ranks among the highest of the big hubs. "My guess is Southwest just wants to come in and take advantage of the higher fares," says Herbst, noting the Charlotte airport gets a lot of traffic from major companies in the area. "If there's any pressure at all on Southwest Airlines it's that they have to raise the fares that they've been charging." Herbst says part of the high cost of flying out of Charlotte is because US Airways has a monopoly - controlling more than 90 percent of the airport's flights. But all of the business travelers through Charlotte also play a role because they tend to buy tickets at the last minute. Southwest Airlines spokesman Brad Hawkins says they will definitely benefit from the transition. "There will be a noticeable difference in the business fares - those last minute fares that are really off the charts in any city where you have a legacy carrier controlling market share," says Hawkins. While Southwest's arrival in Charlotte may not mean lower fares for the typical passenger, there is one perk they can count on for the time being: Southwest still lets passengers check two bags for free. Hawkins says AirTran will become Southwest at the Charlotte airport "sometime in the next two years."