Why no love for Knoxville, Southwest?
Southwest Airlines is the most popular carrier at Nashville International Airport, and is even making the Music City its newest crew base. The airline flies in to Memphis International Airport, too.
Meanwhile, Southwest doesn’t offer any flights in or out of Knoxville, the aviation hub of East Tennessee. It’s not for lack of trying on the airport’s part. When is McGhee Tyson Airport going to get the beloved budget airline?
Southwest is top of the local wish list for McGhee Tyson Airport, despite its nationwide scheduling meltdown last December so extreme it led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the creation of a new Wikipedia page.
When the airport posted a link to a customer survey about renovations and expansion, more than 100 people sidestepped the link and headed straight for the comments. The top comment simply reads “Southwest Airlines.”
The survey, open until Sept. 1, does not include an option to recommend the airport add Southwest. That’s largely out of the airport’s control.
Airlines choose airports and not the other way around. In the meantime, McGhee Tyson leaders say they are working to attract Southwest to East Tennessee.
They’re not saying McGhee Tyson Airport will never acquire Southwest. Airport leadership even thinks Southwest is the next logical addition to its slate of carriers, but it will likely be years before that happens. Here’s why.
Southwest knows Knoxville wants it, but is stretched thin
Southwest’s staff are in conversation with leaders at McGhee Tyson and have even visited the area to scope out the market, Patrick Wilson, president of the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority, told Knox News in July.
“We think we would be a great market for Southwest, and Southwest is very open to talk to us, we’ve had various conversations with Southwest,” Wilson said. “They’re very aware that our community would love to have them, and we as the airport in our review data feel like they would be very successful here.”
Airlines weigh many factors when choosing a new region to service. Wilson, a longtime aviation leader, said airlines need to fill at least 82% of seats in order to make money. They must also consider where to place limited crews and aircraft.
That question is particularly pressing for Southwest as its fleet is composed exclusively of Boeing 737s, a series facing manufacturing delays. In April, Southwest said its delivery schedule for new planes could be delayed for years.
The addition of 1,300 crew members and four gates at Nashville International Airport may also slow the airline’s expansion to the rest of Tennessee.
“We know that they’re interested, we just don’t know when that’s going to be,” Wilson said. “We are in continuous contact in promoting and reminding Southwest about the potential of this market, and they’re very good to have time for us and to listen to us on a regular basis.”
As of March 31, Southwest had 793 Boeing 737 planes in its fleet. For more than 30 years, it has been the first customer to receive new 737s from Boeing.
Can Knoxville incentivize Southwest Airlines to McGhee Tyson?
Airports can use incentive programs to attract airline carriers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, including reducing or waiving landing fees, and incentives sponsored by the community, like a minimum revenue guarantee. Community sponsors may include local governments, businesses and tourist organizations.
Brian Simmons, chairman of the airport’s board of commissioners, said McGhee Tyson is open to using incentives to attract Southwest. The airport’s 2022 marketing budget included $240,000 for its airline incentive program.
“If we have airlines that want to come here or expand services, then we will help them in whatever way we can,” Simmons said. “We also try to provide a great facility and experience here from what we can control. It is ultimately up to the airlines.”
The airport’s customer survey is asking travelers to help “identify what it means to work and live in East Tennessee.” Wilson said the airport serves 12 counties.
McGhee Tyson offers nonstop flights to 26 destinations through Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta, Frontier and United. In 2018, Allegiant made the airport an operational base, investing $50 million and stationing two Airbus planes in Knoxville.
The airport is preparing to build six new gates by 2028 through a terminal expansion project. It expects to serve more than 3 million passengers annually by 2025.
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Daniel Dassow is a reporting intern focusing on trending and business news. Phone 423-637-0878. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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