Southwest announced one-way flights early next year to Chicago for $69. Northwest will match the low-fare carrier's prices.
Southwest Airlines introduced itself to Minnesotans Thursday by offering a $138 round-trip fare to Chicago's Midway Airport.
That's more than $200 cheaper than the lowest round-trip fare that Northwest was selling a day earlier on its website.
But Northwest quickly matched Southwest on the Chicago-Midway route. In its desire to hold on to passengers, Northwest also offered the same low fare to Chicago O'Hare travelers.
Southwest, which carries more domestic passengers than any other U.S. airline, will start flying eight daily flights to Chicago on March 8 out of the Humphrey terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Northwest, which was acquired last week by Delta Air Lines, has vowed to remain competitive with Southwest on routes around the country. It also jumped ahead of Southwest by marketing its cheap fares to Chicago beginning Feb. 28 -- a week ahead of the competition.
Southwest's arrival in the Twin Cities was heralded on Thursday by government and business leaders, who joined Southwest executive Ron Ricks at the Mall of America to celebrate the new service.
"Minnesota's traveling public deserves the choice and benefits of competition," said Jack Lanners, chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
"Why isn't Southwest here?" Lanners said was a familiar question fliers put to MAC officials. "By golly, they're here," Lanners exclaimed as he was surrounded by red, blue and gold balloons at a news conference. Southwest employees adorned the mall setting with dozens of inflatable Southwest planes.
Ricks, Southwest's executive vice president of corporate services, held up a sign that said, "No Hidden Fees," a Southwest marketing mantra. The airline will run ads touting its free baggage service. Delta will match Northwest in charging $15 for the first bag and $25 for the second bag.
Dozens of connections
Southwest flies to 47 destinations from Chicago Midway, but some of those have just a few daily flights. Ricks said that he thinks it will be convenient for Twin Cities travelers to connect to more than 30 cities out of Chicago.
Northwest offers 139 destinations nonstop from MSP. "Twin Cities passengers enjoy the power of the combined networks of both Delta and Northwest and reciprocal benefits for frequent-flier customers," Delta spokesman Anthony Black said Thursday. Northwest also has first-class cabins, while Southwest has all-coach seating.
Southwest's entrance into the Twin Cities comes as consumer confidence is shaky.
"Southwest Airlines historically does better than our competitors in bad economic times," Ricks said. "People become more value-conscious."
Hub competition elsewhere
At a news conference last week, Northwest CEO Ed Bastian said Northwest and Delta will "compete aggressively with everybody." He also noted that Northwest has been successfully competing with Southwest at Northwest's hub in Detroit, while Delta has been vying with Southwest for passengers in Delta's Salt Lake City hub.
Ricks said that Southwest's arrival here will stimulate consumer demand through low fares, just as it has in other markets.
Southwest is offering a $69 one-way or $138 round trip fare to Chicago Midway, which does not include taxes and government fees. Southwest's one-way walkup fare to Midway will be $149, while its one-way "business select" fare will be $164.
There is open seating on Southwest flights. The carrier will sell 15 business-select tickets per flight, and those passengers will board the plane first to choose their seats.
Consumers can only buy Southwest's tickets on the Internet at www.southwest.com.
At the Humphrey terminal, Southwest will use gate 7 and employ about 35 people.
Ricks said that passenger demand will determine whether Southwest adds more destinations from the Twin Cities. "If you go, fares stay low," he said.
Southwest's management is shrewd and the Twin Cities service will succeed, said Steve Loucks, a vice president with Eden Prairie-based Travel Acquisitions Group, which has travel agencies across the United States.
But he stressed that many Northwest travelers will be content to get Northwest's lower fares, which will be caused by Southwest's market presence.
"They also benefit from the frequent flier program, which in many cases they are wedded to," Loucks said. "They rely on it for the upgrades [to first class], particularly for the business travelers."
Liz Fedor • 612-673-7709