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Thirty years since arriving at Lambert, Southwest's dominance takes hold

Thirty years since arriving at Lambert, Southwest's dominance takes hold

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LAMBERT AIRPORT • It began with one gate and just a handful of destinations.

Legendary Southwest Airlines founder Herbert D. Kelleher was on hand to usher in the discount carrier’s modest St. Louis presence back in March 1985. The Dallas-based airline launched with a total of 17 flights a day. Service began with four destinations: Chicago, Houston, Kansas City and New Orleans.

Southwest now dominates the landscape at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport with 82 daily flights to 36 destinations. During peak times, the number of daily flights reaches 92.

But after decades of slow, steady growth by Southwest, Lambert has seen some recent growing pains at the airline’s primary terminal. At times, the hourly garage fills up and motorists are diverted to other parking facilities. More recently, travelers have remarked about wait times at the Terminal 2 baggage carousel.

Earlier this month, a St. Louis airport commissioner asked whether there are plans to add more baggage carousels in the Southwest terminal after he and his family waited 40 minutes to retrieve their bags after a recent trip. There are now two carousels.

Southwest has spurned the special fees for first and second checked bags that other airlines have levied.

Lambert Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said there has been talk of expanding the baggage-claim area near Terminal 2 — and even some initial plans — but it hasn’t gone farther than that.

“That is on one of our wish lists,” she said. “That’s obviously a Southwest decision. They have talked about it. We don’t have a commitment or a definite, ‘Yes, we’re going to.’”

Though parking congestion in the Terminal 2 garage has subsided since the airport increased the cost of very short-term and overnight parking in April 2013, the garage still fills up, said airport spokesman Jeff Lea.

The airport is developing a new 250-space parking lot near Terminal 2 on the site of a former U.S. Postal Service facility on Air Cargo Road. The lot is expected to open this spring, Lea said.

Southwest officials, who just announced new nonstop service between St. Louis and Austin, Texas, beginning in June, said these issues are not unique to Lambert. “Those are issues we work through at every airport we service,” said Southwest spokesman Dan Landson.

Landson said St. Louis remains a significant cog in the Southwest network. Lambert has been ranked among Southwest’s top 10 markets for daily departures in recent years.

Buoyed by plunging fuel prices, Southwest last week announced record net income of $1.1 billion for calendar year 2014, the first time in the company’s history that profits exceeded $1 billion.

But during the year, the airline also saw its on-time performance rank near the bottom among U.S. airlines. Southwest’s on-time performance was 71.9 percent for the 12-month period ending in October, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.

Landson said the airline had tightened its schedule, leaving less time to connect between flights. Department of Transportation statistics show that Southwest’s on-time performance has improved in recent months.

Part of Southwest’s dominance in St. Louis can be attributed to the actions of other airlines. After purchasing TWA’s assets out of bankruptcy in 2001, American Airlines began a long-running reduction of flights out of St. Louis that culminated in 2009. Southwest responded immediately by adding six new destinations, including some previously served by American.

United Airlines now ranks No. 2 behind Southwest. Last year, United had about one-third the number of departing flights that Southwest had, according to statistics provided by the St. Louis Airport Authority. Following closely behind United, in order, were American and Delta Air Lines.

Southwest became the sole occupant of Terminal 2 in December after AirTran Airways was fully integrated into Southwest. Cape Air, Air Choice One and Trans States had moved from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 in the fall of 2012.

Landson confirmed that Southwest enjoys a good working relationship with Lambert officials and that it takes steps to keep customers happy at the airport. Delays like those reported at the baggage carousel during the holidays are generally limited to peak times, he said.

“At every airport, it is always a ballet of making sure we are operating efficiently,” Landson said.

Terminal 2’s open floor plan and high ceilings reflect a stark departure from the other gate areas at Lambert. Hamm-Niebruegge said Southwest prefers that terminal to other concourses, some of which have been idled. She said the airport has made updates to Terminal 2, including a new roof and replacement carpet.

“Their terminal is capable of growing,” she said. “They like where they are situated.”

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Ken Leiser is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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