four months of 2013. American was a distant second, at 15.6 percent.
Lambert Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, formerly a vice president of North American operations for TWA and later American's managing director in St. Louis, said Southwest has more employees at the top of the wage scale and older planes than it did when it burst onto the scene. Those have an effect on the bottom line.
"Are they still a low-cost carrier on a comparative basis? I think yes," Hamm-Niebruegge said. "Are their challenges stronger today than they were 25 years ago? Yes."
Southwest picked up flights to such cities as Boston, Los Angeles and San Diego, which once were served by American or other airlines.
Southwest has entered several new markets from Lambert. Airlines that do so are entitled to a short-term waiver of landing fees from the St. Louis Airport Authority. Southwest, which is housed in the open, airy Terminal 2 -- formerly known as the East Terminal -- now flies to 34 of the airport's nonstop markets.
AirTran Airways, a subsidiary of Southwest, still offers flights from St. Louis as well, and shares space in Terminal 2.
Southwest officials insist the airline's fares remain low. They blame price increases on the same rising fuel prices that have dogged their legacy-airline rivals.
"Are airfares higher than we would like them to be? Absolutely," said Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins. "Is Southwest still the low-fare policeman of the skies? Absolutely."
Southwest is working hard to "conquer the cost mountain internally" through efficiency, Hawkins said. There are no plans to charge passengers for their first two bags or for ticket changes.
Despite the increasing airfares, Southwest customers interviewed last week remain fiercely loyal. They praise Southwest for its customer service, its reliability and its reluctance to impose fees.
"They get people on board. They get them off board. They don't play," said Kathryn Dalton of Wentzville, a former platinum member with Delta Air Lines. "What they do is they keep things moving."
A business traveler, Dalton acknowledged her company generally books her flights and absorbs the fares.
Missy Kent of Chesterfield said: "If I can fly Southwest, I will always do it. Their people are friendlier. They don't tack on all of the extras. ... Their flights are usually cheaper, and I fly a lot."
Kent also likes the ease of getting in and out of Terminal 2, Southwest's primary concourse at Lambert.
The fees make a difference. Frank Estrada flew from Texas to St. Louis, where he planned to play a round of golf at Bellerive Country Club before the pros teed up for last week's Senior PGA Championship.
His choices: Fly one airline and pay $50 to check his golf clubs, or book his flight with Southwest Airlines, where the first two checked bags fly for free. Estrada said it was an easy decision.
"If I have a choice (of airlines) to fly, Southwest is the way to go," said Estrada, a sales manager from El Paso, Texas. "But the prices? You might save five, 10 bucks here and there. It's not much of a difference. Getting there on time and getting your stuff -- that's a plus."
Michael Boyd, chairman of the aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International Inc. of Evergreen, Colo., said the average one-way fare has increased 12 percent industrywide in the past five years, but the cost has actually shot up 29 percent if ancillary fees are factored in.
In a recent report, Boyd analyzed base fares to rank the 10 airports with the highest cost airfares per mile. His findings run counter to the so-called "Southwest Effect" -- the belief that Southwest's entry to a market will reduce fares -- because seven of the airports on the list are served by Southwest.
"The very presence of Southwest doesn't guarantee you will have lower fares than you would have otherwise," Boyd said.
Because it doesn't charge for the first two checked bags or ticket changes, many consumers still view Southwest as a value buy, said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.
"I don't see Southwest as being a low-cost carrier," Hobica said. "They're a low-fee carrier."
(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Most Popular Stories
- NSA Tracks 5 Billion Cellphone Records a Day
- W.H. Corrects Itself on Unclegate
- Pope Francis Says He'll Fight Child Sex Abuse
- Yemen Attack Kills 52
- Fast-Food Workers Want $15 an Hour
- Nelson Mandela Dead at 95
- Nelson Mandela Dies After Momentous Life
- Roybal-Allard Tours Gordon Brush Plant
- Twitter Names Woman to Board
- Aspen Contracting Adding 300 Jobs