They still offer deals for passengers who book trips well in advance, travel off-season and at less popular times. But in general, bargains are getting harder to find, as low-fare carriers join the bigger airlines in raising fares, which are up about 18 percent industrywide this year.
About half a dozen smaller carriers, including Denver-based Frontier, have also gone out of business or entered bankruptcy this year, in part because of high fuel costs.
Industry experts say the dividing line between the low-fare airlines and the largest carriers is blurring. “You don’t have the gigantic gulf of difference you had earlier this decade,” said Philip A. Baggaley, a senior credit analyst with Standard & Poor’s Rating Services.
Southwest says it is trying to set itself apart on the issue of fees, if not fares. Major airlines are piling on new fees, like the $15 charge that AMR's American Airlines , UAL's United Airlines and US Airways charge some passengers to check a bag.
Southwest still allows passengers to bring two free bags, and its marketing slogan is now “Freedom from fees.” Mr. Ridley, the Southwest executive, calls the fees other carriers are charging “airline heroin” because of the dangerous addiction they can become for raising revenue.
The sales pitch resonates with some travelers. David Willenborg, a sales manager for a food manufacturer from Plano, Tex., said Thursday that Southwest’s lack of fees helps save his company money on top of the lower fares it offers for many routes that he flies regularly.
He paid $415 round trip to Detroit this week, about 30 percent more than in the past, but he was able to check his suitcase and golf clubs free. On American, the round-trip fare would have been more than $1,000, he said, plus $40 for the bags.
But Southwest is trying other means to generate extra revenue beyond raising fares. Despite its new slogan, it now offers a service that it calls Business Select. For a fee of $15, $20 or $25, depending on the length of flight and the fare, passengers get a cocktail, an extra credit on their frequent-flier program, and the right to board with the first group of passengers (Southwest does not offer assigned seats).
Dave Anthes, an oil company salesman from Chesterfield, Mo., said he was willing to pay the extra money to ensure his choice of a seat on crowded flights. The priority boarding system, he said, is perfect for business travelers who do not have time to arrive early. “You used to have to get here two hours ahead of time and stand in line,” said Mr. Anthes, who was interviewed at the Detroit Metropolitan airport.