The Brancatelli File



July 1, 1994 -- Guess who's now considered the nation's best airline? Southwest Airlines. Yes, Southwest. No-frills, no-assigned-seats, make-do-with-peanuts Southwest Airlines.

The honor was conferred in April by college researchers in Nebraska and Kansas. Southwest came out on top after the academicians crunched the numbers on a matrix of 19 disparate air-travel factors.

Whether you believe in these kinds of surveys is actually less important than the fact that Southwest now routinely triumphs in them. The April contest, for example, ranked airlines on components such as fares, food, baggage handling, convenience, and frequent-flyer programs. Yet Southwest won despite serving nothing but peanuts, despite its miserable mileage program, and despite denying its passengers and their baggage en route connections to the nation's other carriers.

Southwest's victory, in fact, is the theoretical manifestation of the practical mantra many business travelers now recite every day: give me low fares, and I'll abandon the traditional, high-priced, full-service carriers.

Southwest's rise in California is well-chronicled, but Southwest is hardly a California fad. It is a national obsession. Southwest and its Morris Air subsidiary now fly to about four dozen cities. According to the most recent statistics, Southwest dominates seven of the 21 busiest routes in the continental United States, and it flies more domestic passengers than all but four of the nation's other airlines. But most important is the so-called "Southwest Effect." Not only does Southwest drive down fares anywhere it chooses to compete, it spawns like-minded, low-fare offspring on many routes where it does not fly.

West Coast business travelers are probably most familiar with Reno Air, a full-service carrier that offers Southwest-style prices. But there are many others: ValuJet, which serves 14 cities from its home base in Atlanta; Kiwi International, which undercuts the big guys from its hub in Newark; UltrAir, which slashes fares between New York and the South; and Midway Airlines, based at Chicago's Midway Airport.

The price comparisons between the newcomers and the traditional airlines often seem like parody. Consider Tower Air, which flies a hodgepodge of routes from California, New York and Florida. The most expensive one-way fare on Tower's flights between New York and Paris is just $319--and that buys a seat in business class. Air France's cheapest unrestricted fare is $972--and that only buys a cramped seat in coach.

The bottom line on all this is, well, the bottom line. If you need to fly somewhere and the traditional carriers have priced their seats beyond your reach, look for a low-fare alternative. Thanks to Southwest, they're out there.

United Airlines now offers a business-class cabin on all its nonstop flights between San Francisco International and New York's Kennedy Airport. That's good news for business travelers who want more comfort than coach, but can't justify the cost of first class. But it's bad news for members of United's Mileage Plus frequent-flyer program. Their one-class upgrades now get them only as far as the business-class cabin. ... The oft-delayed new airport in Denver may finally be open by the time you read this, but it will still lack a traditional amenity: an airport hotel. Worse yet, there isn't even an airport hotel in the planning stage.

This column originally appeared in San Francisco Focus magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.