Southwest Airlines CEO sees growth for carrier in Las Vegas

Southwest Airlines Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly has grand visions for Las Vegas — particularly when it comes to growth.

Kelly said he would like the Dallas-based airline to carry more convention-bound passengers into Las Vegas, where the amount of meeting space continues to grow at a rapid pace.

“We’re relatively new in that area and we’ve always supported groups and conventions, but now we have a sales force who will be more aggressive in pursuing that,” Kelly told the Review-Journal during an interview Tuesday morning at the Bellagio.

Officials with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said the agency works with Southwest and other airlines to attract more travelers.

“Southwest Airlines has been a great airline partner for Las Vegas,” said Brig Lawson, the LVCVA’s senior director of business partnerships. “We are always excited to provide support to our partners as they bring new and increased service to Las Vegas.”

As the market leader in Las Vegas, Southwest has up to 219 daily departures to 57 cities nationwide, airline executives said.

Even though McCarran International Airport saw a record-high 48.5 million airline passengers in 2017, Southwest’s traffic in and out of Las Vegas dipped nearly 1 percent last year due to a change in the carrier’s fleet, Kelly said.

Older versions of the Boeing 737-300 jetliner were retired by Southwest and replaced with the new, bigger and technologically advanced version known as the 737 Max 8, aimed at reducing maintenance and fuel costs. If economic conditions and demand continue to improve, Kelly said, Southwest likely will add 15 to 20 planes annually into the near future.

“As we grow the fleet this year and restore that capacity, we’re getting back to the flight counts that we had before,” Kelly said.

Southwest is still waiting for federal clearance to launch flights to Hawaii by the end of this year, but Kelly said initial service will be limited to one or two yet-to-be-determined airports in California.

Southwest has no immediate plans for nonstop flights between Hawaii and McCarran International, but Kelly noted that Las Vegas is a one-hour hop to most California airports.

“We have such great service between California and Las Vegas, so I think we’ll have very nice itineraries to and from Hawaii and here as well,” Kelly said. “I think that’s definitely something to look forward to more in 2019 or 2020 as we continue to grow our presence in Hawaii.”

Southwest launched international service in 2014, currently flying to 10 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean — but there are no immediate plans to offer nonstop flights between those destinations and Las Vegas.

However, Kelly said that could someday change as Southwest continues to grow its fleet with the Boeing 737 Max 8 jetliners, which are capable of flying longer distances.

“Las Vegas is definitely an opportunity for us, but not a top priority right now,” Kelly said. “Over the near term, I don’t see us adding any more international destinations because the focus is on Hawaii and it’s a little early for us to make a determination about what we might want to do in 2019.”

Even though it’s early in the year, Kelly said he believes an improving economy and the addition of more hotel rooms in Las Vegas will help steer McCarran toward another record-breaking year for airline passenger traffic.

“Las Vegas will continue to be a very high priority for us,” Kelly said. “Las Vegas is determined to grow, and a lot of cities aren’t. Las Vegas is building more hotels and bringing in more jobs. The airport is very focused on supporting that, and by virtue, so are we.”

Contact Art Marroquin at amarroquin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @AMarroquin_LV on Twitter.

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