The news is certainly welcome in the sense that it reverses the trend of declining passenger service at Memphis International Airport. Jack Sammons, the new chairman of the Airport Authority, called it "a home run." But when you do a little comparative pricing, it looks more like a single. More on that follows, but first the basics of the announcement:
In a national release by Southwest, the company detailed four new Memphis flights to three new AirTran routes; twice a day between Memphis and Chicago Midway, and once daily service between Memphis and Orlando, and Memphis and Baltimore/Washington. The new flights will begin service on August 11, 2013, and are in addition to the current five daily non-stops on AirTran between Memphis and Atlanta. The new service is available for booking immediately for flights on or after August 11.
“We are very excited that Southwest has decided to add three new city pairs for Memphis to fly under its AirTran subsidiary. Many years of relationship building with Southwest are paying off,” said Larry Cox, President and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. “This service addition reinforces the message given to Memphians last September by Southwest Executive Vice President Ron Ricks when he stated ‘We're here. We're here to stay ... You've got to be patient with us, and things will not happen overnight.’”
“We are excited and grateful that Southwest Airlines has decided to include MEM in their network. This news is a home run for travelers in our region hungry for affordable flight options,” added recently elected Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority Chairman Jack Sammons. “Southwest management has informed me that they will add additional flights this year based on how well these initial flights perform. As one Southwest executive remarked in our meeting last week, ‘The more flights we take, the more we get.’ It’s a new era in aviation in America and certainly a new era for our airport. Your Airport Authority will continue to be relentless in our efforts to make Memphis the airport of choice for the traveling public.”
Now for a little number crunching. I could book a flight to Chicago Midway on August 15th, a Thursday, with a return to Memphis on August 18th, a Sunday, for as low as $253 on Air Tran. But there is only one non-stop flight on each of those days. Otherwise, you go through Atlanta, and the trip takes approximately four to six hours each way and the fare goes to $276 or $316. Still not a bad deal if you have the time, but you are dealing with one of the biggest and busiest airports in the world — Atlanta — and a secondary Chicago airport on the east side of the city which makes it more or less convenient depending on your destination. The business fare on Air Tran is $823 round trip.
For travel on the same dates, Delta has several nonstops for a round-trip price of $253. The first-class/business fare is $1,181. For travel in March — five months before the new Air Tran service begins — you can book a weekend Thursday-Sunday trip to Chicago O'Hare on either Delta or United non-stop for $396 today.
As always, when and how you travel — short notice, business or pleasure, flexibility — makes a huge difference in the cost, duration, and convenience of air travel in the age of booking through Kayak, which makes everyone a travel agent. Again, this looks like a small piece of good news but it's only a home run if you are playing in a Little League park with a 200-foot fence.
UPDATE: After doing a little more checking, I see there are two, not one, daily non-stops in the service to Chicago that begins in August. My bad. But one of them, be warned, leaves Memphis at 5:35 a.m. As for the new flights to Orlando, Memphis to central and southwest Florida is already well served. There is service to Orlando, Tampa, Sarasota, and Fort Myers for under $350 round trip in February and March, most of it through Atlanta. And if money is more important than time to you, Amtrak offers a $99 fare (each way) from Memphis to Chicago that puts you in the heart of the Windy City.