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Southwest's "No Frills" is Not Without Charm

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RDU INTERNATIONAL — Two months ago, officials withRaleigh-Durham International Airportwere flying high when they announced thatSouthwest Airlineswould soon serve this area.

And for good reason.

One airline analyst compares getting the low-cost carrier to winning the Super Bowl.

The so-called "Southwest Effect" may well change the way we fly here from now on.

With 288 planes and more than 2,400 daily flights, Southwest might seem to be just another big airline.

But to understand it, you have to experience it.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Southwest began serving the renovated T.F. Green Airport just outside the city of Providence, R.I.

Air travel here has not been the same since.

The airline introduced fares hundreds of dollars cheaper than the other carriers, and quickly turned heads.

"Because the price is good, the people treat you nice and it's on time, what a concept huh?" laughed Jamie MacDonald, a Southwest passenger.

Other airlines followed Southwest's lead.

The average fare to markets served by Southwest from Providence is now down 43 percent since the airline began landing there, according to Back Associates, an aviation research firm in New Haven.

Gil Engles owns Church Travel in Providence, and has seen the Southwest effect first hand.

"If we used to have an airfare on US Airways from Providence to Baltimore that was $700 round trip. When Southwest comes in, they'll probably make it $39 one way. And then US Airways will match it," Engles said.

And, unlike other low cost carriers, Southwest has near-spotless safety, on-time, and customer satisfaction records, fueling even greater passenger affection.

"It's just easy on, easy off, on time," agreed passenger Richard Hatch.

But Southwest's arrival in the Providence area does have its downside. Primarily, a serious parking shortage. For example, right next to the Southwest gates, the airport is scrambling to put together a new 1500-space parking garage, and that still won't be enough.

T.F. Green Airport keeps expanding a makeshift lot alongside a runway. Travelers now have to drive as far as a mile once they enter.

Since Southwest came to Providence, passenger traffic has doubled to almost 5 million people a year.

"Right now we have hit our 2010 projected forecast for traffic," said one airport official, "which means that we're trying to build facilities and catch up with what we thought we would be in 10 more years."

There's a similar story in nearly every city Southwest moves into. So odds are that both the benefits and the hassles associated with Southwest will be coming soon to its next destination: RDU International.

Of course, there are some differences you need to know about Southwest.

It keeps costs down by being no frills -- that means no meals and no assigned seats.

Passengers in Providence, R.I., where Southwest also has service, say you have to show up an hour or two before the flight to get a good seat.

But most of them say its worth their time to save hundreds of dollars.

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Len Besthoff, Reporter
Richard Adkins, Photographer
Kay Miller, Web Editor

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