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Southwest Invades Its Last Frontier: Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet) -- Southwest finally has arrived at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, an anti-climax that came after the airport spent more than a decade trying to attract the carrier.

In years past, the arrival of Southwest at an airport was a widely heralded event that symbolized for many the possibility of low fares and new destinations, and the airport administrators who presided over the recruitment were widely praised.

But in Charlotte, which had longed for Southwest throughout the 1990s, the airline's arrival this week has been just a matter of time ever since Southwest acquired AirTran, which has flown to Charlotte since 2005, and began to gradually convert its operations. So the importance of Monday's press conference was largely symbolic, with the symbolism enhanced because Charlotte Douglas was the last major hub that Southwest did not serve.

Since the 1980s, Charlotte Douglas has been growing as a hub for US Airways , with interruptions for two bankruptcies and an economic downturn that began in 2001. That growth had immense benefit for Charlotte, making it a city where regional banks grew into national banks and where companies moved because of the abundance of air service, which led to more air service because more companies created more demand. "A virtuous circle," is the way US Airways CEO Doug Parker recently described it .

But dominance by a single carrier, at an airport with relatively little originating traffic, meant the pressure was always on Charlotte Aviation Director Jerry Orr to attract low-fare carriers.

"Good things come to those who wait," Orr said Monday in an interview, during which he extolled the virtue of patience and also listed the low-fare carriers which preceded Southwest to Charlotte. They included AirSouth, ATA, Independence and little-known Southeast Airlines, which for about six months in 2000 and 2001 served St. Petersburg, Fla. All five folded. But AirTran and JetBlue , which arrived in 2006, eventually did bring low fares to Charlotte on select routes.

"Charlotte Douglas is a big airport that we've looked at for years," said Dave Ridley, Southwest senior vice president for business development. But Southwest hesitated, he said, because for it, "the classic formula is underserved and overpriced markets. This airport has suffered from being overpriced, but it is not underserved."

Moreover, "going into major hubs we've been discreet in our business plan," he said. Philadelphia, another US Airways hub, in 2004 became "the first classic mega-hub" where Southwest jumped in. Four months later, US Airways filed its second bankruptcy.

Subsequently, Southwest went to Denver and Washington Dulles in 2006, to San Francisco in 2007, to Minneapolis in 2009, to Newark in 2011 and to Atlanta, as a result of the AirTran merger, in 2012. Southwest got into Detroit and Phoenix in the 1980s and Salt Lake City in 1994,, following the acquisition of Morris Air. In the cases of Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Miami, Southwest serves secondary or nearby airports.