Airline Highlights: Southwest Airlines and 15 Years of LUV at RDU

Known for singing flight attendants and relaxed business culture, Southwest Airlines for decades has marched to a different corporate drummer. This month marks 15 years since Southwest first landed at RDU, bringing changes not only to air service, but also to the way the airport does business. 

Former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher and former RDU Airport Director John Brantley during a visit by Southwest officials in the late 1990s.

Former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher and former RDU Airport Director John Brantley during a visit by Southwest officials in the late 1990s.

Recruiting Southwest

Recruiting an airline has changed since we first reached out to Southwest in 1994-95. Ours was an old-fashioned courtship that began with a letter from then-Airport Director John Brantley directly to then-CEO Herb Kelleher. We soon began a cordial relationship with staff that continues to this day.

There were a lot of synergies between RDU and Southwest during that time. Our region was growing. Their company was growing. We were both looking to increase our destinations. We were both looking to grow our flights in the same geographic regions. In many ways it seemed like a perfect match.

Our strategy was to approach Southwest by using quirky, fun marketing tactics that they would appreciate. So over the courting years we used the mantra, “We’re young. We’re rich. We’re smart. We fly.”  Of course this was supported by a hard-hitting business case with a variety of market data.

Southwest and RDU are celebrating 15 years of service to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Southwest and RDU are celebrating 15 years of service to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

In time, our courtship led to a visit by a team of SW executives (and later by Kelleher) who invested several days touring the region and meeting with business executives in Raleigh, Durham and the Research Triangle Park. This type of on-the-ground research is rare today.

When Southwest launched service in June of 1999, its first flights from RDU included Baltimore, Chicago-Midway, Tampa and Orlando. They were housed in the oldest section of the then Terminal A where operations remained until moving to the brand new Terminal 1 in April.

Today, Southwest serves 11 destinations with about 196 flights per week and serves over a million passengers a year. They’re one of our top three carriers in terms of number of passengers. Operating from four of nine gates in the terminal, there is plenty of room for flight additions to Texas, the Midwest and other parts of the Southwest and West Coast. (Hint, hint SW folks!)

Impact on RDU Culture

Sunrise at Terminal 1 on opening day, April 13, 2014.

Southwest Airlines planes at sunrise at Terminal 1 on opening day, April 13, 2014. The terminal is the new home of Southwest at RDU.

Southwest also has made a difference on our business culture. When we looked at them they had on shorts and we had on suits. We quickly realized they dressed more casually than us, so we left the ties and suits at home when meeting with them. Soon, our casual Friday dress code as a corporate culture was born.

SW also helped define our focus on customer service by inviting us to their corporate culture academy for business where we learned about their famous customer care tactics. Today, customer service is at the heart of everything we do. Service standards are in everything from traffic control to parking and shops and restaurant operations. It’s all part of our commitment toward delivering world-class service.

So happy anniversary Southwest! We’ve each grown over the years and we look forward to your Sweet 16 party next year. Do you have a great memory of Southwest at RDU? Share with me in the comments below.

About Teresa Damiano

Teresa Damiano is the Vice President of Communications and Community Affairs for the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority. She directs air service development, guest services, communications and customer service. And, she's not afraid to bribe an airline with her famous homemade lasagna.
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5 Responses to Airline Highlights: Southwest Airlines and 15 Years of LUV at RDU

  1. fibercut says:

    Southwest filled the vacuum left by American’s closed hubs at Nashville and San Jose, too.
    That said, Southwest+AirTran has lost a little market share at RDU recently.

  2. kurt bell says:

    I remember the big push to get ready for their opening. We conducted a couple of LARGE SIDA classes down in Room 100. We had something like 40 or 50 people in the classes. Glenn English, the first station manager, and his staff were great to work with and always had a positive can do attitude.

    SWA has been a pleasure to work with since day one. :-)

  3. Rich Murray says:

    Southwest’s arrival at RDU in 1999 allowed me to accept my dream job at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I was fresh out of grad school, and saw a perfect job at Vanderbilt, but I wanted to be able to visit friends and family back home in the Triangle frequently. Before Southwest came, flights between RDU and Nashville were very expensive, and there were few nonstops. But Southwest arrived with frequent, inexpensive RDU-BNA flights just when I needed them. I applied and was hired at the Vanderbilt job, and spent three happy years there and was able to travel back home as often as I wanted thanks to Southwest’s low fares. I’ve since moved back to the Triangle to work at Duke, but that first job at Vanderbilt paved the way for my career, and I’m still grateful to Southwest for making it possible!

  4. Mark Womack says:

    I hope WN is listening! Would love to see them offer RDU-OAK to challenge UA and AA on RDU-SFO.

    Would also love to see them re-establish AUS, MCI, SAT and SAN
    and with 5 new available gates, WN better grab them before F9 begins DEN and AS starts SEA!!

    Thanks for the great article.

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