ST. LOUIS --Tom and Bea Levenhagen take Southwest Airlines when they
The couple from Elizabethtown, Pa., look at things like the availability of a direct flight instead of those that require numerous connections. Good customer service. And the fees that some airlines charge enter into the final decision.
"We traveled with them for a lot of years -- originally because they were a discount carrier," Bea Levenhagen said last week, while waiting for a flight near the Southwest ticket counters at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. "We don't look at it that way anymore. It is more the convenience."
Southwest Airlines, which pioneered the concept of low-cost, no-frills flying, has seen its typical base airfares surge to the rest of the pack at a time of continued airline consolidation, soaring fuel costs and rivals that charge fees for checked bags and ticket changes, according to interviews and government data.
Average one-way airfares between St. Louis and seven other cities have increased 25 percent since the fourth quarter of 2008, according to a review of the most recent U.S. Department of Transportation's Domestic Airline Fares Consumer Reports.
The average fare between St. Louis and Dallas increased to $194 in the fourth quarter of 2012 from $122 in 2008 -- a 59 percent increase. That is a sizable jump, considering Southwest competes with American Airlines in that market. Fares between St. Louis and Cleveland rose more than 50 percent during those four years.
Brad Seitz, president of the research company Topaz International, said the company studied Southwest's fares on 100 different city-to-city routes and concluded that the Southwest competitor offered a lower fare more than 60 percent of the time.
"The result is surprising given the perception in the marketplace, and with many travel managers, that Southwest Airlines is in fact the low-cost carrier in all markets they serve," the report states.
But in reviewing airfares when a single checked bag was factored in, Topaz found Southwest's competitors charged more 60 percent of the time. When a second checked bag was factored in -- something less likely for business travelers -- the other airlines were higher 88 percent of the time.
Southwest permits two checked bags per ticketed customer at no cost, provided they don't exceed the airline's size or weight limits. And passengers can change their travel plans without penalty.
Southwest entered the St. Louis market in March 1985 when Lambert was still dominated by Trans World Airlines and Ozark Air Lines. Within months, Ozark began chalking up losses to competition with Southwest and People Express Airlines -- both discount carriers.
The Dallas-based carrier forced other Lambert carriers to match its low fares on routes where the airlines competed head to head. By 1987, Southwest was the second-busiest airline serving Lambert -- albeit far behind TWA in the number of passengers. By that time, TWA and Ozark had merged.
Since TWA's successor -- American Airlines -- began to significantly scale back its St. Louis flight offerings in the fall of 2003, Southwest has filled much of the vacuum and now is solidly entrenched as Lambert's busiest air carrier.
Southwest carried 49.3 percent of Lambert passenger traffic through the first
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