Southwest may land here, but will it matter?

If Southwest Airlines succeeds in buying Denver-based Frontier Airlines, the godfather of low-cost carriers plans to take over all of Frontier’s markets, poising it to finally touch down in Atlanta.

Southwest on Monday submitted a more than $170 million bid for Frontier and said it “intends to maintain all existing markets” if the deal happens. Frontier, up for auction in bankruptcy court, operates three daily round-trips between Denver and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

It’s a “very reasonable assumption” that Southwest will fly to Atlanta if its bid succeeds, said the carrier’s executive vice president of strategy and planning, Bob Jordan. Southwest is competing with Republic Airways Holdings, a regional jet operator, with the auction expected to begin Thursday.

Dallas-based Southwest has never served Atlanta, though wishful rumors of its impending arrival have floated around civic circles ever since it emerged as the leading no-frills discounter in the early 1990s.

Now that it may finally land at Hartsfield-Jackson, the question is how much of a difference Southwest could make.

“I’m sure many of their existing fliers would love to be able to get to Atlanta on Southwest,” said aviation analyst George Hamlin.

For local travelers, even a handful of Southwest flights -- whether to Denver or to some other city in its network -- would enable them to get into its route system without driving to Birmingham, now the closest Southwest market.

But when asked how large a presence Southwest might try to build, executives demur.

“There are a lot of questions such as that one that we’ll just have to take up if we’re fortunate enough to prevail” in the auction, said Ron Ricks, executive vice president of corporate services.

Southwest would not be able to build much of a schedule using Frontier’s limited gate space at Hartsfield-Jackson.Airport general manager Ben DeCosta said no other gates are currently available.

If Southwest wanted to expand in Atlanta, “we would talk to them,” DeCosta said. “We’re always looking for ways to accommodate competitive service.”

DeCosta said he does not know if Southwest could make a big difference in fares. He noted that AirTran Airways’ growth into a large discount carrier has already provided major competition for hometown giant Delta Air Lines.

“You’d have to take a look,” DeCosta said. “What we have now is AirTran and AirTran’s presence and their ability to run a robust operation here has kept fares fair.”

Still, Southwest’s presence would be significant because Atlanta is one of last major markets it does not serve, said airline consultant Darryl Jenkins.

“I assume someday they’re going to try and enter [Atlanta], and this is certainly an easy way,” Jenkins said. Atlanta would give Southwest another north-south connecting point for travel from into Florida, he said.

The airline typically likes to start with one or two gates at an airport, operating as many as 8 to 10 flights per gate per day, Hamlin said.

“Southwest typically goes into a market with the goal of becoming No. 1 or No. 2 in that market,” Hamlin said. “That’s not going to be easy in Atlanta.”

In Delta, “You have the world’s largest single-carrier hub and that’s not an easy thing to attack,” he said, adding that AirTran has a “very considerable presence.”

“Even if Southwest finds a way to utilize fully one or two gates, I’m not sure that’s going to be treated as a major incursion,” Hamlin said. “Of course, that is what could be the opening salvo in a major war.”