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Saturday, April 26, 2014
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Locals lobby airline to stay in Key West

"Oh, won't you stay, just a little bit longer? Please, please, please, please, say you will."

Key West locals are making the same beseeching request to officials at Southwest Airlines, whose planes are scheduled to depart Key West for the last time on June 7. Those last flights are of the one-way variety, as the airline announced last year that it will no longer serve airports in Key West, Branson, Mo., or Jackson, Miss.

"I have heard rumors of a local letter-writing campaign asking Southwest to stay, and I've also heard rumors that such actions have worked in the past in other cities," said Peter Horton, director of airports for Monroe County. "But as of now, they're still scheduled to leave here June 7.

The local letter-writing campaign is not just a rumor.

Several Key Westers are circulating contact information for Southwest's executives, and on May 7 are organizing a massive email, Twitter and Facebook posting campaign to fill the airline's inbox and social media accounts with a simple message, "Save Key West."

"It's certainly worth trying to get their attention," said Fred Hellmuth, a Key West resident who has flown Southwest four times in the past three weeks.

"Last year, I had to fly Delta to the same city, and paid twice as much," he said, adding that Southwest's occasional 35-hour sales finally make air travel to and from Key West affordable for locals.

"May 7 is one month before their scheduled departure, so we're trying to get everyone to bombard them on that day, because when they leave, it'll immediately bring prices up at Key West International Airport," Hellmuth said, adding that he sent his own personal letter to the company's Texas headquarters, explaining the situation and telling executives that if Southwest leaves Key West, Hellmuth will have to drive four hours to use his 70,000 Southwest frequent flier miles.

"Who knows?" he said. "But it can't hurt, and I've heard it's made a difference in other cities, but we'll see. It's worth a shot, at least."

Horton said on Friday that Southwest would certainly be welcome in Key West if they opt to stay.

He said Southwest has only been seeing a 66 percent load factor (or occupancy rate) on their flights to New Orleans. The airline's national average is 80 percent.

"What's hurt us the most is the New Orleans load factor," Horton said. "When the 66 percent is averaged into the load factors for Southwest's flights to Orlando and Tampa, their overall load factor for Key West is down to 70 percent."

The airline learned last year that it could start using space at New York's La Guardia airport and Washington, DC's Reagan National, Horton said.

"They need planes and crew to put in those new urban locations," said Monroe County Airports Director Peter Horton, "so they're going to look at their lowest performing cities."

But in the meantime, Horton has been working on filling the void their departure would leave in flights and services.

He met recently with officials from Silver, Frontier and Jet Blue.

"They weren't ready for me to go public with their plans, but those plans really look good for us," Horton said. "We'd be sorry to see Southwest go, but are already working on replacing their capacity."

mmiles@keysnews.com

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