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Southwest Returns to San Francisco

Flights will resume in the fall.


(LUV) - Get Southwest Airlines Co. Report

says it will resume flights this fall to San Francisco International Airport, joining a bevy of low-cost carriers that have recognized the airport's improved operating environment.

Southwest, which abandoned the airport in 2001, said Friday it is talking with airport officials and "aims to return to the West Bay in a meaningful way in the early fall." It hasn't released service details.

"San Francisco International is the only major Bay Area airport we don't currently serve, having made a very difficult decision in 2001 to cease service there after nearly 20 years," said CEO Gary Kelly, in a prepared statement. "Today, SFO has improved operationally and is a more cost-efficient airport."

In the past year, San Francisco flights have been added by






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and privately held Spirit Airlines.

The moves have partially reversed a trend in which low-fare carriers flocked to Oakland International Airport. San Francisco, meanwhile, has remained the third-biggest hub for

United Airlines


, with premium international service and higher fares.

But the airport has sought to reverse its high costs and to reduce the likelihood that bad weather would impact operations.

"San Francisco has made a lot of changes," said aviation consultant Bob Mann. "Costs have gone down as airport management has tightened its belt."

Additionally, improved instrument landing procedures have enhanced the airport's ability to maintain arrival levels in foggy weather, while congestion dropped after the 2001 terrorist attacks triggered an airline industry restructuring.

Mann said other carriers at the airport will likely all be affected in some way as Southwest competes for passengers. "Southwest drains the pool," he said. "They nick everybody."

Southwest began flying to San Francisco in 1982, but eventually chose to focus on Oakland, building an operation with 142 daily departures. It also has 77 daily departures from San Jose.

Of leaving in 2001, Kelly said, "Back then, facility and runway constraints meant we could not compete and be profitable, and there was no growth potential beyond the 14 flights we had at the time." He noted that service levels at the two other area airports won't be affected.

Southwest's plans reflect its effort to position large numbers of new airplanes. The carrier will add 37 Boeing 737s in 2007, boosting capacity by 8%, and it has 30 firm orders and four options for 2008. This May, it will add new flights on existing routes from Denver, Baltimore and Chicago Midway and will begin Denver to Tampa service.