Southwest’s entry into Wichita market will change air travelers’ experience, say analysts

As Southwest Airlines makes its entrance into the Wichita market on Sunday, passengers not used to flying Southwest will notice some differences.

For one, bags fly free.

For another, there is no assigned seating.

“They do things differently,” said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University associate professor of marketing and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Ratings.

“For the most part it’s very efficient. That’s the reason they can offer better prices.”

Southwest is also “just more fun,” Headley said.

“They joke; they carry on; it’s more than an airplane ride,” he said. “I think some people will enjoy that.”

Southwest begins daily nonstop service Sunday from Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport to Chicago-Midway and Las Vegas – Southwest’s top two destinations – and Dallas’ Love Field.

At the same time, AirTran Airways’ daily flights to Atlanta will cease.

The changes come after Southwest bought AirTran in 2011. It has worked since then to integrate AirTran markets into Southwest markets.

Southwest’s arrival in Wichita means more low fares, said Valerie Wise, Mid-Continent Airport’s air service and business development manager.

“Southwest is known for great customer service and on-time performance,” Wise said. It also ranks high in customer satisfaction, she said.

For Wichita, it also means greater access, Wise said. Southwest operates more than 3,500 daily flights to 97 destinations in 41 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and six countries, according to its website.

“You’re going to see dramatic decreases in fares to some of these destinations that are currently high-fared,” Wise said.

For the first three months of 2013, an average one-way fare on Southwest was $152.29, according to Southwest’s website. A quick check on flights to Chicago and Dallas from Wichita next month found round-trip fares for less than $200.

‘The big dog’

Passengers can expect other differences.

When Southwest comes into a market, “it changes everything,” Headley said. In the world of discount carriers, Southwest is “the big dog,” he said.

“We can look for other players in the market to adjust to the presence of a strong competitor like Southwest,” he said. “They always do.”

At times, he said, Southwest causes other airlines to exit a market when they can’t match the pricing.

“The positive thing is they’re here; they plan on being here for a while,” Headley said. “They don’t come into a market unless they plan on making a go of it.”

On the downside, Southwest is the last of the low-fare carriers for Wichita.

“If they decide that it’s a market they don’t want to be in after a few years and decide to leave, we have no more low-fare options,” Headley said. “That’s a problem.”

Southwest, he said, “is our best, greatest and possibly last hope for maintaining reasonable air fares in Wichita,” he said.

Making adjustments

The flying public will have to make some adjustments to get used to Southwest service, Headley said.

“Are they big adjustments?” he said. “It depends on the person’s perspective.”

Passengers used to individual seat assignments on other carriers will notice a change in boarding procedures. Southwest assigns passengers a specific boarding group of A, B or C, and passengers choose any available seat when they get on board.

The earlier the check-in, the earlier the boarding.

Southwest also offers early boarding called EarlyBird Check-in, for a one-way fee of $12.50. According to its website, paying for early boarding generally means an assignment to group A, although it’s not guaranteed.

Other differences include:

• Two free checked bags.

• No charge for switching travel days and times, but it will charge for any difference in fares.

• No booking through booking engines such as Orbitz or Travelocity. Instead, flights must be booked through


, by calling the airline at 800-435-9792 or going through a travel agent.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle