Southwest Airlines expects to take its first bite out of the Big Apple next year.
The low-fare giant has agreed to pay $7.5-million for 14 slots at LaGuardia Airport owned by bankrupt ATA Airlines. That's enough to make seven takeoffs and seven landings daily at the airport closest to Midtown Manhattan.
Southwest flies to Islip Airport on Long Island, 50 miles east of Manhattan, but not to the big three metro New York airports: LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark Liberty.
"If you truly want to be in the New York market, you need to be in one of those airports," spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger told the Associated Press. The deal requires approval of the U.S. bankruptcy court. If that goes through, Southwest will start LaGuardia flights next year, she said.
Southwest, the biggest airline at Tampa International, hasn't talked about routes or fares. But the airport could be on a short list of cities for LaGuardia flights, TIA executive director Louis Miller said.
"When they've started new cities — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Denver — we were among the first (destinations)."
New York is by far the biggest destination from Tampa International, with 17 percent of all traffic for the year ending in June 2006. Airlines make 16 daily flights to New York, not including Southwest's three daily flights to Islip.
For decades, Southwest had no interest in LaGuardia and other congested big-city airports. Delays in the air or on the ground would mangle its tightly orchestrated schedules designed to get the highest possible utilization of planes and crews. Planes that aren't flying don't make money, former chief executive and co-founder Herb Kelleher liked to say. But since becoming CEO in 2004, Gary Kelly has been willing to slay sacred cows at the airline. He pushed for Southwest's first "code share," a deal with ATA to sell tickets on each other's flights. Agreements with Canadian discounter WestJet and Mexico's Volaris will let Southwest sell tickets for flights outside the United States for the first time.
Indianapolis-based ATA filed for bankruptcy protection and grounded its fleet in April. Southwest won't bid on all the carrier's assets, passing up two slots at Washington's Reagan National Airport.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.