Airlines Boost Capacity to West

Analysts note expansion doesn't necessarily signal turnaround

By: Jerry Chandler

This month’s moves by United and Southwest to add hundreds of new flights offers a much-needed boost to air capacity in the West.

But analysts are cautious to label the expansion as evidence that the industry is improving.

“I think (the increase) is primarily seasonal,” said Morten Beyer, chairman of Morten Beyer & Agnew, an Arlington, Va.-based aviation consulting firm. “Seasonal, or maybe hopeful.”

Still, the increase in flights will provide relief for agents in the West who are facing increased summer travel demands from clients.

United announced it is restoring 162 flights to its June schedule. Its plans for the West include:

"From Denver: United said it will increase daily departures to Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Newark; Portland, Ore.; San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle/Tacoma. Select United Express regional jet service to Wichita and Salt Lake City will be upgraded to UA mainline aircraft for the summer season. United will also launch summer seasonal service to Anchorage, and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

"From Los Angeles: United said it will offer additional flights to Washington Dulles and Orlando.

"From San Francisco: United said it will increase service to Baltimore/Washington, Boston, Honolulu, Kona, Maui, Las Vegas, New York JFK, Philadelphia, and Portland, Ore. The carrier will reinstate nonstop SFO-Seoul service, and add a second daily nonstop from San Francisco to London Heathrow. SFO-Sydney service becomes a daily affair, up from three departures per week. Meanwhile, Southwest said it plans to significantly boost Vegas and California service:

"From Las Vegas: Southwest says it will launch nonstop service to Manchester, N.H.; Hartford, and Detroit Sept. 10. In October, WN begins nonstop LAS-Raleigh/ Durham service. The carrier is also adding service on existing routes out of Vegas. And on Aug. 10 said that it will add additional departures to Orange County, Reno and Tucson.

"From Orange County: On Aug. 10, Southwest said it will add departures to Phoenix, Sacramento and Las Vegas.

The flights will ease some air travel options for West Coast travelers, who had seen significant cuts after 9/11.

But analysts say the additions still do not bring capacity back to pre-9/11 levels.

Even as United, the nation’s second-largest carrier, prepares to offer 1,722 daily domestic and international departures, a company spokesman said that’s 29 percent fewer flights than it operated in August 2001.

The new flights are, “just a pickup for the summer,” said Brian Streeval, an analyst with The Boyd Group, a Colorado-based airline consultancy. “(United) is primarily an east-west carrier. East-west traffic increases during the summer.” Beyer said he also doesn’t see other major carriers restoring service as fast as United because “most of them didn’t cut as much as United did.”

Last week, American Airlines unveiled its own turnaround plan. While it included lowering some fares to the West Coast, it did not include additional flights.

For Southwest, analysts said that the low-cost carrier is in a league of its own.

Historically, carriers perceived by the public as the low-fare leaders have, if not thrived, at least continued to expand during troubled times.

“I think Southwest is playing its own game,” said Beyer. “They don’t need any help from anybody else.”

Such is the perception of the carrier as the nation’s leading low-fare airline that travelers continue to fill seats on almost any route it opens.