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Viva la Southwest!

| Sunday, Jan. 9, 2005

Its arrival has been delayed too long, but Southwest Airlines is finally coming to save us.

My favorite airline - the one I've driven to Cleveland, Columbus and Buffalo to fly west on many times - will start operating out of what's left of Pittsburgh Barely International Airport in May.

US Airways, as Southwest's brilliant bosses must know, will be dead and buried by then, mortally wounded by the greed and stupidity of its managers and unions but finished off by a pack of smarter low-cost carriers and heartless market forces.

The Texas airline famous for low fares, good service, low costs and a sense of humor won't pick up all of US Airways' business, which once approached a monopolistic 90 percent of all flights here. But Southwest's mere coming will mean genuine competition in air travel has arrived for good in Western Pennsylvania.

Even if Southwest offers as few as 15 flights a day, it will do for us what it has done in a dozen other markets from Nashville to Philly since the early 1990s - send the average price of airfares down and local demand for air travel up.

Unlike most carriers, Southwest knows what it's doing. Starting as an intrastate puddle jumper 33 years ago, the airline has perfected the point-to-point service model while racking up 31 straight years of profitability in an industry that has lost $20 billion this century alone.

It's a miracle that Southwest is coming to town -- not because it was bribed with local government subsidies, but for solid business reasons. It's also a credit to the hard work of the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

Unfortunately, landing Southwest has taken far too long. Pittsburgh International is its 61st airport. Southwest has been in Cleveland and Columbus for a decade. It's been in Baltimore for years. It's in Philly. Even Buffalo.

As a starving traveling journalist interested primarily in price, I've always been a huge fan of Southwest. I've flown it by myself or with family members about 15 times in the last 20 years and can honestly report I've never experienced any of the common horrors of modern mass air travel.

In-flight movies and meals don't exist on no-frills Southwest - just drinks and those infamous peanuts. And in the 1980s its enthusiastic flight attendants could annoy you by breaking into dumb show tunes or doing stand-up comedy routines over the PA.

But its airfares were always affordable. Flights arrived on time. Luggage was never lost. Planes were never cancelled. Once during a layover in Burbank, Calif., I watched my Southwest pilot help baggage handlers to load the luggage.

During the 1990s, when my family of five traveled from Pittsburgh to San Francisco several times, I saved as much as $150 per ticket by commuting to the super-competitive airports in Cleveland to fly west on Southwest. Thousands of other Pittsburghers, including Mayor Murphy, did likewise.

During Christmas 2001, I saved $1,000 by driving to Buffalo, where Southwest had a deal to Oakland, Calif., and back for $200. It was a great trip, except for that return drive to Pittsburgh late Sunday night in a lake-effect blizzard that took 10 hours.

Going 20 mph on the New York Thruway in a whiteout at 3 a.m. with my headlights off and risking the lives of my sleeping family in a car wreck is an adventure in "air-travel" I don't wish to repeat. And now that Southwest is on its way to Pittsburgh, I'll never have to.

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