updated 1/3/2006 6:24:50 PM ET 2006-01-03T23:24:50

Amid cheers and confetti, Southwest Airlines Co. launched its first Denver flights in 20 years Tuesday as the discount carrier officially opened a fresh challenge to United, Frontier and other dominant airlines at the region’s largest airport.

Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly told a crowd that healthy customer response has prompted the airline to expand its Denver service beginning March 4 to two additional cities, Baltimore/Washington and Salt Lake City.

“We’re here to stay,” he said.

The airline will consider expanding even more in the months ahead, possibly to Texas and Florida, Kelly said later, but declined to be more specific. Initial bookings have been about normal in the slower travel period after the holidays.

Southwest will challenge UAL Corp.’s United Airlines as it prepares to emerge from bankruptcy, its discount arm Ted and low-cost Frontier Airlines — all of which have hubs at Denver International Airport. United, Ted and Frontier carry about 75 percent of Denver’s passenger traffic.

Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas said he did not think Southwest’s intention was to put the Denver airline out of business. “I think their intent is to grow their company as our intent is to grow our company,” he said.

Dallas-based Southwest operated in Denver from 1983 to 1986 and decided against returning when DIA opened in 1995 because of costs. At the time, airlines paid an average of $16.85 per passenger in fees associated with landings, gate rent and other lease costs. That average dropped to an estimated $14.30 per passenger last year.

Southwest started its Denver service with 13 daily flights to Las Vegas, Chicago’s Midway Airport and Phoenix. With the expansion in March, the airline’s schedule would increase to 20 daily flights, which would put it at capacity for the two gates it leases on Concourse C.

Kelly said he expected to begin discussions with city officials about additional gates soon.

Passengers on Southwest flights welcomed the airline’s return to Denver, hoping that it would promote competition and lower fares as well as provide an economic boost.

“It’s a big deal because Denver is one of the higher-priced cities,” Joan Zack of Brush said as she waited for a flight to Phoenix.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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