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Celebration Marks First Southwest Flight

Nov 4, 2013


Re-Posted from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Monday, November 4, 2013 by Katherine Calos.

Balloons at the check-in counter and a fire truck salute on the tarmac celebrated the first Southwest Airlines flight at Richmond International Airport on Sunday.

Water cannons arched their spray from both sides of the plane as it pulled into the gate, a treat for both arriving and departing passengers. The watery welcome will be repeated at today’s official celebration of the long-anticipated service to Richmond by the low-fare carrier. For now, Richmond has one daily Southwest flight originating in and returning to Orlando.

Alex and Mae Hanson, ages 7 and 5, “loved the fire truck salute. They were very excited” to watch from the terminal, said mother Michelle Hanson as she waited for husband Robert Hanson to get their luggage in Orlando. The Bon Air family took advantage of a Southwest promotion to make their first trip to Disney World. “We didn’t realize that it was the first flight,” she said.

The first passenger off the plane from Orlando was Kevin Leffler of West Palm Beach, Fla., coming to Richmond for business. He said he’d never seen water cannons before.

“Everybody was taking pictures out the window,” he said.

Mark and Morgan Brock of Ashland, returning to Richmond after a honeymoon cruise in Florida, said they appreciated the celebratory return to normal life. “It’s a nice end of the honeymoon,” she said.

Paul O. Nevins, pilot on the inaugural flight, stood at the gangway to welcome people aboard. He wore a special tie showing the many airlines that had become part of Southwest. He wove the Southwest motto that “you are now free to move about the country,” into Patrick Henry’s Revolutionary War cry, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

“If Patrick Henry were alive today,” Nevins said, “he would be saying, ‘Give me Southwest Airlines, which gives me the freedom to fly around the country.’”

Passengers included tried and true Southwest fans and newcomers who were puzzled by the Southwest boarding system. Southwest does not offer assigned seats.

Newly installed stanchions in the B terminal of Richmond International Airport helped passengers line up by number, based on whether they paid for priority boarding and how soon they checked in. Each ticket had a group boarding letter and a passenger boarding number from 1 to 50-plus. As each letter group was called, passengers assembled at the stanchion that included their number in a five-digit span at the top.

Robert Hanson wanted to be sure he was one of the first to check in, so he waited at his computer for the check-in process to open 24 hours before departure. He succeeded in getting his family in the A group.

Mike Huneycutt of Western Henrico was a little confused on where he was supposed to find B35, but he got friendly advice from Southwest veterans Harvey and Karen Hilpipre of Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Huneycutt had chosen the flight because it was direct and had a good price. “I don’t like layovers. I thought I’d give it a try,” he said. “It’s very different from how it works on other airlines.”

The Hilpipre couple was returning home after a vacation in Virginia. They fly Southwest often because of the perks as well as the fares, they said. There’s no fee for the first checked bag; and there wasn’t a change fee when they decided to change the date of their return flight to Minneapolis.

A group of five from Kinsale Insurance Co. was also lured by the fare and the straight shot to their three-day conference in Orlando.

Clay Rhoades said he used to fly Southwest a lot when he was in the Army. “They forced everyone else to be competitive on prices,” he said. “Hopefully we will have a lot of people using this.”

David Cashwell, CEO of HealthSouth Richmond, expects to be using it a lot. He lives in Richmond during the week and in Orlando on weekends. “I was surprised that there wasn’t always a direct flight,” he said. “I will use it in the future.”

The youngest passenger on the inaugural flight to Richmond was 2-month-old Addison West. She flew in with parents Richard and April West, of Oklahoma City.

Richard West grew up in Short Pump, got his private pilot’s license in Richmond on Dec. 17, 1998, and works for Southwest as the company historian in Dallas. He takes two flights a day five days a week to get to work, he said.

On the first Richmond flight, he was documenting the flight and also bringing Addison for a first visit to her grandparents. “I’ve been looking forward to this ever since I heard about it in May,” he said. “This means a lot to me. We were crossing our fingers” that Addison would cooperate, and she did.

Airport officials have been crossing their fingers for a long time, too. “It’s something we’ve worked on for probably 15 years,” said Troy Bell, director of marketing and air service development for the Capital Region Airport Commission. “If it weren’t illegal to pop champagne,” he said, “we probably would.”



Katherine Calos

(804) 649-6433



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