For Fresno flyers, the long-awaited arrival of Southwest Airlines is nearly here and the airline is prepping to jet off from Fresno Yosemite International Airport in style, launching service on Sunday.
It’s been a process that has been years in the making. Since the world’s largest budget airline announced its entrance into the Central Valley last December, airport management has been working to make the transition seamless.
Kevin Meikle, the Director of Aviation at Fresno Yosemite International, told The Sun on Wednesday that the process to prepare for Southwest’s operations has been an easy one since the airport runs a common use system.
That system, Meikle said, allows any airline to use any counter or gate based on the situation for the day.
“We don’t have empty counters and gates laying around, so it makes a huge difference to have that system already in place,” Meikle said. “It’s almost kind of like a plug-and-place scenario for the airlines, so that was a big deal.”
Along with the common use system, the airport has been able to offer Southwest plenty of office space to get their operations up and running quickly.
Meikle said that the transition has been so smooth that Southwest finished its set up 30 days ahead of schedule, using the last month to focus on training.
“They were able to step into these empty, ready-to-go spaces and just do their thing with them,” Meikle said. “It really happened very fast. It was very seamless. There wasn’t any major reconstruction or shifting around that we had to do. Everything aligned really well for Southwest to step in and start operating.”
The airport is celebrating Southwest’s launch Sunday morning with a ribbon cutting ceremony ahead of the inaugural flight to Las Vegas.
Southwest Vice President of Network Planning Adam Decaire, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer and Fresno City Councilman Tyler Maxwell will join Meikle for the event.
“They have been a fantastic partner, fully engaged not only with us as an airport, but with the community,” Meikle said. “They are really tuned into what’s going on here. One of the mayor’s initiatives is Beautify Fresno. They’re tuned into that and want to be part of that. This is what they do. They become community partners. We’re seeing that from the very beginning when they started this process of entering our market. It’s just a win-win for everybody.”
On Southwest’s end, a spokesperson for the airlines told The Sun that the airport has been “rolling out a red carpet” in preparation for Sunday’s launch.
That effort to make Southwest feel at home is driven by a relationship between Meikle and the airline that spans several years.
Well before Southwest announced its intention to serve the Valley, Meikle would meet with Southwest management at least once a year – if not more – to provide an update on the airport and the market.
That culminated in the airline’s reaching out to Meikle in October of last year to set up a November meeting with airport management to hash out the details.
“We had already established a relationship. They were familiar with us. We knew each other by first name, and that’s key,” Meikle said. “When we had that first initial meet when they came here, it felt like we already knew each other. They were familiar with our airport already, so it was really a situation where they’re confirming that yes, ‘This is the right place to go at this time. We can start up service relatively easily.’
“Our view is that it’s a partnership. They’re just part of our team. We’ve always treated them as part of our team, even before they were here.”
With Southwest operating two routes out of Fresno to start – Las Vegas and Denver – will the airlines find early success and expand operations within the first few years?
Meikle thinks so, in large part because of the interest that has been garnered by the move from up and down the Valley. He said that he has heard from several chambers of commerce in the Central Valley regarding the addition.
“Southwest has a history of entering a market like they’re doing here and then growing into that market. I know that the response that Southwest is seeing both with travelers coming into the Fresno area as well as travelers here from the Valley heading out somewhere has been tremendous. It validated the fact that they made the right decision with regard to the right destinations at this point in time,” Meikle said.
“I really do think that they’re going to continue to grow in our market. What we may see Southwest doing two years from now I think will be very different and expanded upon what we’re seeing them start out here next week.”