Southwest Airlines' CEO says clearer rules needed for tarmac delays

Gary Kelly said Tampa International Airport could play a role if and when Southwest Airlines launches international routes, especially to Mexico and the Caribbean.

Associated Press (2006)

Gary Kelly said Tampa International Airport could play a role if and when Southwest Airlines launches international routes, especially to Mexico and the Caribbean.

Southwest Airlines dominates business at Tampa International Airport unlike any carrier since the old USAir did in the late 1980s. One in every three travelers at TIA flies Southwest, which also carries more domestic passengers than any other U.S. airline. Like its rivals, Southwest throttled back on growth as the recession put a scare into travelers. But the low-fare airline still added three major cities — Minneapolis, New York (LaGuardia) and Boston — and one smaller one: Milwaukee. CEO Gary Kelly was in Orlando recently for an address to employees. He talked with the Times about the new government fines for long tarmac delays and progress on plans to sell its first international flights.

There was a lot of talk that airlines canceled so many flights in last month's East Coast blizzard because of a federal rule that would fine them for stranding travelers more than three hours on grounded planes. Did that happen at Southwest or elsewhere?

Subconsciously, it has to have some bearing on scheduling. But you don't want to carry that to an extreme, that one thing is going to change the intricate details of an operation. It's certainly one more reason to be careful about managing a storm. But this was a massive storm. All the airlines treated it very seriously.

That's not to say airlines are happy with the prospect of paying $27,500 per passenger for a long delay, right?

This has been argued and argued, and it's done. We need to have clarity on how this is going to be applied and not leave it to interpretation, because the fines are so steep. I don't want Southwest to be taken advantage of by the government.

You wanted a rule, you got a rule. Let's understand how it applies and let's all just live with it. There are very few flights that should be in question, anyway.

What kind of clarity are you looking for?

How do you calculate the three hours? It's not at all clear that it will apply in all circumstances. Well, what are those circumstances? If you want it (subjectively) applied, then don't fine us.

Where are you with plans to sell your first international flights through code shares with Canada's WestJet and Volaris of Mexico?

We don't have a date. I hope they're up and running this year. It's just a lot of work to do. You're exchanging passenger reservations and baggage. It's additionally difficult because we don't have any international capability. We're just behind because we moved other things in front it.

How about the idea of flying international with your own jets?

We still want to (do that) ourselves, but there's no work being done on that currently. I think that's several years away.

That said, is it too soon to think about flights from Tampa International and other Florida airports to the Caribbean?

What is logical for us to think about is that we have 68 cities, and we'll be expanding into Panama City in May. Florida just marches on.

It's a very important part of the U.S. to Southwest. It is very logical for us to expand into North America. Maybe Hawaii. Maybe the Caribbean. If we do that, Florida — including Tampa — would potentially play a role. Mexico is a very logical extension for Southwest Airlines given our domestic footprint in the Southwest. Even Florida and Chicago drive a lot of business to Mexico.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Southwest Airlines' CEO says clearer rules needed for tarmac delays 03/14/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 14, 2010 7:39pm]

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