Southwest is OK being No. 2 at ATL, CEO says

Southwest Airlines is the No. 2 carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and CEO Gary Kelly acknowledged he’s not jockeying to bump Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines from its leading position here.

“We’re never going to be the No. 1 airline here in terms of the most seats or most flights or the most number of passengers, but we are a very significant No. 2,” Kelly said at an Atlanta Press Club luncheon Thursday. “I don’t think we absolutely have to be big for big’s sake.”

“For now it’s stable,” Kelly said. “We don’t have any plans to grow Atlanta here in the near term.”

Southwest has 125 daily departures in Atlanta — far fewer than the roughly 200 AirTran Airways operated at its Atlanta hub before it was bought by Southwest in 2011 — but it focuses on local traffic instead of connecting passengers.

Southwest flies its own course on some service issues, with no first class, airport lounges or assigned seating, and a first-two-free checked baggage policy. It operates an all-737 fleet, which reduces complexity in scheduling, training, staffing and maintenance.

But Kelly said he expects the opportunity in 20 years to be in longer-distance flying and bigger airplanes, “maybe some bigger, dual-aisle version of the 737.” He referenced Boeing’s new mid-sized plane under development, known as a 797, and said “maybe we’ll think about something like that one of these days.”

For now, he said the 737 is “a pretty good airplane, so we don’t’ have any thoughts whatsoever of doing anything differently.”

Asked about recent viral incidents such as the dragging of a United Airlines passenger off a full flight earlier this year, Kelly said “it was a catalyst for us to refocus” on overbooking. Southwest in May stopped the practice of overbooking, while acknowledging that some flights may still end up with too many passengers due to issues such as aircraft changes or weight restrictions.

Kelly said the company had been studying the issue before the United incident. An oversold flight “is horrible,” he said.

Southwest has a “no change fees” policy, but in 2013 started a policy for “no shows,” which has helped reduce its historically higher rate of no shows. And with better economic circumstances today than in past years, “we can afford to take that risk,” Kelly said.


AJC Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi keeps you updated on the latest news about Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Delta Air Lines and the airline industry in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on, including these stories: 

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