Does Southwest Airlines have hubs? Yes, but don’t call them that.

Nov 3, 2020

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Southwest Airlines has long touted its point-to-point approach to flying as a key to its success.

Flyers taking advantage of the airline’s “everyday low fares” did not all have to go through Atlanta or Chicago to reach their final destination. Instead, in many cases, they could avail themselves of Southwest’s many nonstop flights from their hometown to popular destinations.

Want a nonstop to Orlando (MCO)? Southwest probably does it. See a Las Vegas (LAS) flight in your future? Southwest’s your airline.

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But like all things, change is — and has been — afoot at Southwest. The coronavirus pandemic laid bare a strategy that has been been evident for much of the decade since the airline’s 2010 acquisition of AirTran Airways. Take away all of the Albany-Las Vegas or Richmond-Orlando flights and Southwest has hubs buttressing it’s route map.

Atlanta (ATL), Baltimore/Washington (BWI), Chicago Midway (MDW), Denver (DEN), Houston Hobby (HOU), Nashville (BNA), Oakland (OAK), Phoenix (PHX) and St. Louis (STL) are the airline’s major connecting airports, according to a presentation by Southwest  commercial chief Andrew Watterson in October. Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston and Phoenix are also the carrier’s busiest averaging more than 100 daily departures since the COVID crisis began.

Say hello to your Southwest hubs.

Related: Southwest Airlines expands again, adds three more cities to its route map

A line of Southwest planes at its Baltimore hub. (Image by Edward Russell/TPG)

 

“It’s not a hub like [Dallas/Fort Worth] is a hub for American [Airlines],” Watterson told TPG in an exclusive interview. “We don’t schedule the whole thing for connectivity in banks… There’ll be a time of day in these big cities where it’ll be scheduled for connectivity, which is what a hub is. The rest of the day is not scheduled for connectivity — connectivity happens but it’s just a big city.”

An airline hub is commonly defined as an airport that sees “banks” of flights arrive and depart in close proximity to one another to enable transfers. At DFW hub for example, American operated seven banks of coordinated arrivals and departures between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Nov. 2, Cirium schedules show. This makes it easy for a flyer from, say, Louisville (SDF) get to Albuquerque (ABQ) without the benefit of a nonstop flight.

American’s hub at the North Texas airport has made it the country’s busiest from April through at least July, the latest month with available BTS data. This title has long been held by Atlanta, home of Delta Air Lines’ largest hub.

Related: State-by-state guide to coronavirus reopening

Whether or not he calls them hubs, Watterson said offering connectivity is beneficial. Citing Virginia’s Norfolk (ORF) as an example, he explained how Southwest can attract more flyers to its daily flight to Orlando by also offering connections over Baltimore. Offering both a nonstop and connecting flight option expands its appeal to travelers, and creates more flexibility within the its own operation.

And the nine aforementioned hubs are not the only places where Southwest offers connections. Others, including Dallas Love Field (DAL) and Las Vegas (LAS), are all busy airports in Southwest’s system and offer some flight transfers.

The pandemic made connectivity all the more important. Southwest likes to say how it maintained service to every dot on its map — even when U.S. officials let airlines drop up to 5% of their cities after receiving federal aid. The carrier was able to slash its schedule by dropping many nonstop flights but keep cities by focusing flights on primarily the hubs.

Related: Southwest Airlines unveils 10 new Chicago O’Hare, Colorado Springs routes

The Nashville airport opened a new Concourse D for Southwest’s hub in July. (Image by Stephen M. Keller courtesy of Southwest Airlines)

 

Southwest’s COVID growth spree is only accentuating these hubs. All but two of the 21 new routes unveiled from six new cities —Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Colorado Springs (COS), Miami (MIA), Montrose (MTJ) and Steamboat Springs (HDN) in Colorado, and Palm Springs (PSP) — are to those nine airports.

“Southwest has one of the best domestic hub networks possible, and each new city makes the hubs more and more powerful,” wrote Cranky Flier author Brett Snyder in a recent piece on the carrier’s new Chicago and Colorado Springs routes.

More new routes to these cities are coming. Southwest plans return to Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH) and Jackson, Mississippi (JAN), after multi-year hiatuses. It also will add Savannah (SAV) to its map next year. Many expect new routes to these airports to follow the same pattern of the previous six additions.

Related: Colorado braces to wave of new winter flights as Americans flock to ‘snow and sun’ destinations

“We’re evaluating more right now. Whether we make the decision or not is still up in the air,” said Watterson when asked if more new cities were on tap during the pandemic.

Prior to the crisis, Southwest executives were known for saying there were 50 U.S. cities the airline could expand to in the future. That would leave 41 potential new destinations for the carrier to add before COVID passes.

The map additions, on top of giving Southwest flyers more travel options, allow the airline to put otherwise idle crews and aircraft to work. CEO Gary Kelly has said the expansion is not just a “pandemic play” but a competitive move to capture an even larger share of the U.S. market as travel recovers.

Related: Southwest adds another new Colorado ski town, unveils Miami and Palm Springs routes

An aerial view of Southwest’s operation at its Denver hub. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

 

But do not let the expansion fool you: Southwest is significantly smaller today than it was before the coronavirus. Schedules lack much of the depth they had had prior to the pandemic and many international destinations remain suspended due to local travel restrictions. The airline will fly about 65% of what it flew in 2019 this November when new flights to Miami and Palm Springs begin, Cirium shows.

December is a little worse, even with the addition of Montrose and Steamboat. Currently, the carrier is scheduled to fly only about 57% of a year ago during the final month of 2020. However, December schedules are still subject to change.

“We don’t know if that’s March, or June, or September or December next year,” said Watterson when asked when Southwest will recover to 2019 flying levels. “For the time being, our target is to just match supply and demand.”

This is a shift from Watterson’s view in May. Southwest hoped to resume a nearly full schedule by year-end at the time. However, the resurgence in COVID infections during the summer brought the understanding that the virus was much more contagious than SARS — the airline’s previous pandemic benchmark — he said. It “became clear that demand is going to come back much slower.”

Related: Palm Springs is booming with new flights during the pandemic

The industry consensus is that air travel will not return to pre-pandemic levels until around 2024. However, that airlines rely heavily on leisure flyers — carriers like Frontier Airlines, Southwest and Spirit Airlines — are expected to recover faster.

A slower recovery is forecast for major carriers American, Delta and United Airlines. Most expect that the corporate and international travelers that generate an outsize portion of their revenues will return at a more lethargic pace than holidaygoers.

Hence the opening Southwest sees: grab some of the Big Three’s largest markets, be it Chicago or Miami, while they are down. With expenses low amid pandemic-related cost cuts and available aircraft readily available, the risks are low and potential benefits high.

Related: Budget airlines muscle into big airports as coronavirus creates new opportunities

Southwest is not alone. JetBlue Airways and Spirit are also using the crisis to expand at some previously constrained airports, including at Newark (EWR) and Orange County (SNA).

“In a way, this is the best time to test new destinations and new routes,” Atmosphere Research president Henry Harteveldt told TPG in September. “If you don’t take a risk now, it may be more difficult to do so when things get back to normal and there is pressure to generate [financial] returns.”

Related: Airlines are flying some unexpected routes during the pandemic

The story has been updated with an expanded list of nine hubs instead of seven based on comments by Andrew Watterson at the Boyd forum in October.

Featured image by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

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