Texas friendly met Minnesota nice on Sunday.
On the first day of Southwest Airlines service in the Twin Cities, exuberant airline employees managed to pry a little song-and-dance out of passengers waiting to board the first flight to Chicago at about 6:30 a.m.
"Hold on, wait a minute, gotta put some Southwest in it, gotta put some LOVE in it," they sang, kicking up their heels as much as a group of Minnesotans will do on a chilly March morning, especially after losing an hour of sleep to daylight saving time.
Once aboard, passengers gave the airline the thumbs-up for no baggage fees and for leather seats, open seating, friendly workers and free wireless Internet access, which was being tested on the new Boeing 737-700 series plane.
"They're inexpensive but very friendly. They know how to get you from one spot to another with a little fun along the way," said John Zimmerman of Bloomington, who with his daughter, Jenna, 7, planned to visit Chicago's Field Museum and enjoy deep-dish pizza before taking a train home Sunday night.
Zimmerman got hooked on Southwest Airlines Co. when he was in the Army in Texas and looking for the cheapest way to fly his family back home to Minnesota for visits. He wrote to Southwest in 2003, asking when it would add service in Minnesota. It wrote back, "Keep your hopes up and someday we'll be there." When that day came, Zimmerman wanted to be on the first flight.
Southwest, based in Dallas, is flying eight daily flights between Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport's Humphrey Terminal and Chicago's Midway Airport. The flights take about 95 minutes, with the last one leaving the Twin Cities at 7 p.m. From Midway, passengers can connect to 47 other cities on 197 daily departures. Southwest's lowest one-way fare from MSP to Midway is $49, including fees.
With just one destination out of Minneapolis, Southwest is merely dipping a toe into this market. But it has made shrewd decisions in other markets, analysts say, growing from a scrappy low-fare carrier to the No. 1 airline for domestic travelers. Still, it may face stern competition here: Northwest Airlines, which was acquired by Delta Air Lines last fall, has proven over and over again its willingness to defend its territory.
"We're just, as everyone else is with the current economic environment, taking a wait-and-see approach," Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said. "If and when there are opportunities to add flights and destinations, we'll certainly do that."
During the first flight, the flight attendants peppered their announcements with humor, telling passengers it was a "non-smoking, non-whining, non-complaining flight" and that as long as they did what they were told, "no one would get hurt." As the plane landed 20 minutes ahead of schedule, flight attendant Michael Applegate announced: "We want you to tell everyone we're early. Because if we were 20 minutes late, that's exactly what you'd do."
Paul Bugbee, who was flying with his dad, Jack, said of the flight, "It was fun and casual."
Jack Bugbee, a resort owner from Paynesville, Minn., who counts himself among those who encouraged Southwest to come to town, said the airline "has the most remarkable record of all airlines in the United States and is the only one that consistently shows a profit."
"They have a remarkable safety record, and they are fun to travel at affordable fares," he said.
Southwest is one of several airlines testing in-cabin Wi-Fi systems. On Sunday, passengers were able to access the Internet once given the all-clear for portable devices.
Rich Lehmann, who was flying on to New York for business, said he likes having down time while flying but doesn't mind having Web access.
"I don't want to be doing business all the time, but it's good to be able to check the weather," said Lehmann of Good Thunder, Minn.
Mainz said Wi-Fi is being tested on four Southwest planes and will be expanded "if it's something our customers find value in and it goes well."
On Sunday, Jim Johnson had been a Southwest pilot for 25 years and three days. Johnson, who now lives in the Dallas area, grew up in Balaton, Minn., and volunteered to fly the first Minnesota flight. What made it more special, he said, was that his co-pilot was his son, Craig, who is based in Oakland, Calif.
"It was a lifetime dream, a blessing," he said of flying with his son. "First to get to fly together, then to get to start service in Minneapolis."
Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707