Southwest Airlines’ effect on the Memphis market likely to be measured, slow
By Wayne Risher
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
For the better part of two decades, the Bette Bus connected Memphis air travelers to Little Rock and Southwest Airlines’ bargain fares.
But when Roy Kent brought the shuttle service back as the Betty Bus in 2009 after a four-year absence, he lost gobs of money.
The problem? Not enough difference in fares between Memphis and Little Rock airports to justify an $80 round-trip shuttle ride.
“The everyday person, I didn’t get a lot of those people,” said Kent. “They’d look at the fares and say, ‘Never mind.'”
Last March, Kent redeployed buses to haul tourists to attractions in Memphis and Tunica, carry Elvis fans to Tupelo and ferry Ole Miss students to Oxford. He still makes an occasional Little Rock run by appointment, but those days are apparently numbered as Southwest makes plans to set up shop in Memphis.
“It really won’t hurt me,” Kent said. “I was just kind of hitting and missing going to Little Rock anyway.”
Kent’s experience suggests the arrival of Southwest Airlines in Memphis might not totally rehabilitate the city’s reputation for historically above-average air fares.
However, Memphis International Airport officials and travelers anticipate significant pressure for lower fares, along with an expanded list of destination cities, once Southwest completes plans to acquire AirTran.
AirTran has served Memphis since it came to the city as ValuJet in 1993. It offers four daily flights, all to Atlanta, the No. 1 destination for passengers flying out of Memphis.
Airport officials have wooed Southwest for years, but the city’s status as a fortress hub, first for Northwest, more recently for Delta, kept the nation’s largest discount carrier out.
For the record, Southwest officials said it’s too early to tell how the acquisition would affect Memphis. The company has said it will move into Atlanta and out of Dallas-Fort Worth, but nothing will change for about two years, and everything’s speculation beyond that.
“We don’t have many details on certain cities and the specifics around service to those markets,” said Southwest spokeswoman Ashley Dillon. “I can tell you we are interested in serving most, if not all, of AirTran’s markets. The additional destinations were why we were interested in AirTran.”
Aviation consultant Mike Boyd of BoydGroup International said, “As for Memphis, it’s a start for Southwest, but I wouldn’t plan on any major expansion for a while — no additional airplanes.”
Memphis travelers have long rooted for Southwest to land here.
“I think fares will drop, but only where Delta has to compete with Southwest,” said Robert Cockerham, who said he’s a regular Southwest and AirTran customer.
Travel agents and experts point out that AirTran’s small presence in Memphis has helped keep Delta fares down for Memphis-Atlanta service.
And the highly competitive nature of the airline business has tended to narrow the gap between high and low fares for travelers who book far enough in advance to get the best rates.
A spot check by Dallas Minner, owner of Stress Relief Travel, found a walk-up, one-way fare of $506 on Delta from Memphis to Los Angeles; the comparable fare on Southwest from Little Rock was $439, 13 percent lower, but not enough to cover a Betty Bus ride.
Cockerham said Southwest offers big advantages like no baggage fees and more flexibility on changes in travel plans.
“I own my own business, and I can’t justify paying out-of-sight airfares,” Cockerham said. “I drive to Little Rock and Nashville whenever I can.”
“I’d love to see them here. I think Delta will definitely fight tooth and nail to try to run them out.”
Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority officials said the airport’s status as a low-cost, low-hassle passenger connecting hub should serve Southwest well in its future growth.
“The Memphis airport has capacity to accommodate additional air service from any and all carriers,” said board chairman Arnold Perl.