Southwest Airlines lands at Richmond International Airport (RIC

2013SouthwestRICcc.jpgSouthwest Airlines started service this week at Richmond International Airport. The low-fare, no-frills carrier is entering the Richmond market initially with just one daily round-trip, nonstop flight to Orlando, Fla., the capital region’s No. 3 destination with about 173,000 annual passengers. But while Southwest’s arrival at RIC may have small short-term impact, in the long run, the airline could be crucial for the region’s economic competitiveness.

“When the American Airlines and US Airway merger goes through, then there’ll be four (major) airlines left,” said Jon E. Mathiasen, Richmond International’s president and CEO. “It’s important that Richmond has all of these carriers at its airport.”

Right now, five large airlines — Southwest, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways — carry more than 80 percent of domestic airline traffic. “As a community, you want all five serving you,” said Troy Bell, RIC’s director of marketing and air service development. And the big five fly at Richmond, as well as Southwest’s AirTran subsidiary and discount carrier JetBlue Airways.

Southwest Airlines is America’s largest low-fare carrier and it flies more domestic passengers than any airline — 112 million passengers last year. Richmond International officials have sought Southwest’s service for more than a quarter century.

Historically, the Dallas-based carrier’s entry into a market had produced lower fares and increased passenger traffic, a phenomenon called the “Southwest effect.” Local officials think the Southwest effect could work its magic in Richmond, too. “It’s a powerful brand. People make an instant association with low fares,” Bell said. “It’s a remarkable brand of service. They’ve received slews of awards and accolades for what they do.”

Southwest is one of the most honored airlines in the world, known for its triple bottom line approach that takes into account the carrier’s performance and productivity, the importance of its People and the communities it serves, and its commitment to efficiency and the planet.