Southwest adds a new city to its roster: Minneapolis

— -- Southwest Airlines luvwill launch service to a new city for the first time since August 2007 next spring when it will begin flying between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago's Midway Airport.

The decision means the USA's leading discount airline — which already carries more domestic passengers than any other carrier — will be moving onto one of Northwest Airlines' nwabread-and-butter routes just as the Eagan, Minn.-based carrier expects to be merging with Atlanta-based Delta. That merger is expected to receive federal antitrust approval and to be completed before year's end.

Southwest Chairman Gary Kelly said the decision to move into the Minneapolis-St. Paul market in March has nothing to do with the Northwest-Delta merger. But he did note that the route between the Twin Cities and Chicago served mostly via Chicago's larger O'Hare Airport, is precisely the kind of route Southwest likes to move into.

"There's very high fares on that route. And there's as many people flying between those two cities as we serve between Dallas and Houston, maybe more," Kelly said.

Kelly suggested Southwest's low-fare formula could stimulate even more demand for air travel between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, but he said Southwest won't be planning for rapid growth there or additional destinations from Minneapolis-St. Paul until executives see how demand develops on the one route to Chicago. Fares from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Chicago currently range from $270 to $436.50 one way for coach.

Southwest's launch in Minneapolis-St. Paul is unusual in that it rarely operates just one route from any city it serves. Typically Southwest launches service in a city with flights to two to four destinations, and then adds more routes within a year or two.

Kelly said details of Southwest's service plans at Minneapolis-St. Paul will be announced later, but that it likely will begin with "two or three gates." That would imply the ability to operate 20 to 30 flights a day, based on Southwest's typical gate-utilization rates.