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Southwest taking short hauls to No. 1

Southwest Airlines planes Justin Sullivan (c): Getty Images

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KAI RYSSDAL: Here’s a way to pass the hours next time you find yourself crammed in the middle seat on a packed airliner. Try to guess which carrier is on track to become the biggest airline in the world by the end of this year, as measured by the number of passengers it carries. I’ll tell you right now you’re not going to come up with the right answer, no matter how long that flight is. Here’s a hint, though. The winner only flies in one country. Stacey Vanek-Smith has that story..

Stacey Vanek-Smith: Southwest Airlines hauled more than 40 million people around the U.S. during the first five months of 2007. That’s going to put it ahead of American Airlines this year as the world’s biggest carrier in terms of passenger volume. Southwest’s Beth Harbin says it’s not just a regional airline anymore.

Beth Harbin: Southwest is offering that Southwest Airlines-brand of service to the entire country.

The 36-year-old carrier only flies domestic routes and serves a lot of very small airports. So how did it get so big?

David Field: It is a customer service organization that happens to fly airplanes. And that’s the key to its success.

That’s David Field with Airline Business Magazine. He says people like Southwest so much that towns actually lobby the airline to serve their communities.

Field: I have never seen an unfriendly Southwest employee. And I don’t know anyone who’s had a truly horrible experience with Southwest, the same way people have horrible experiences with other airlines.

Field says Southwest has stayed lean, and cleverly stocked up on fuel when gas prices were low.

But airline analyst Richard Aboulafia says revenue is a much more important number than passenger volume. And, he says, last year American Airlines came in 4th among U.S. carriers in terms of revenuea€¦ Southwest came in 17th.

Richard Aboulafia: They’re hauling an awful lot of passengers, but they’re hauling them for relatively short distances in a low-profit commodity market. Basically bus travel with wings.

Aboulafia says American, UAL and Delta are dropping those domestic routes so they can focus on more lucrative international flights.

I’m Stacey Vanek-Smith for Marketplace.

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