Southwest Airlines adds 11 new routes, plans to resume a full schedule by year's end
Southwest Airlines is betting on its history of growing out of economic slowdowns to be among the first airlines to resume a full flight schedule after the coronavirus pandemic.
On Thursday, the Dallas-based carrier extended its schedule through Jan. 4, 2021. The plans call for about as many flights as it flew at the end of 2019 by the end of this year. That includes growing the number of available seats for sale by 10% or more at its bases in Denver (DEN), Las Vegas (LAS), Nashville (BNA) and Phoenix (PHX).
This comes as other airlines, notably American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, warn staff that they will be significantly smaller at the end of the year compared to 2019. American and Delta have retired hundreds of jets, while American plans to prune its management workforce by as much as 30%.
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“As we’ve seen in past downturns, we’ve been able to capture substantial demand post the downturn," Southwest commercial chief Andrew Watterson told TPG when asked about the recovery from COVID-19 in an interview. "We’d expect no different this time.”
Following 9/11, the closest comparable crisis to the coronavirus, Southwest did not cut any flights after returning to the sky. The airline even added Norfolk (ORF) to its map as planned in October 2001.
In addition to flying a full schedule this winter, Southwest plans to add 11 new routes to its map beginning in November. The additions include:
- Atlanta (ATL): Louisville (SDF), Oklahoma City (OKC) and Omaha (OMA) all on Dec. 17
- Austin (AUS): Long Beach (LGB) on Nov. 1
- Denver: Birmingham (BHM), Little Rock (LIT) and Wichita (ICT) all on Dec. 17
- Houston Hobby (HOU): Ontario, California (ONT) on Nov. 1
- Nashville: Orange County (SNA) on Nov. 2
- Phoenix: Long Beach on Nov. 1, and Memphis (MEM) on Dec. 17
Related: Southwest Airlines sees fuller flights in May
Steamboat Springs (HDN) in Colorado is notably not among the routes due to begin through Jan. 4. Southwest still plans to launch flights from Denver this winter depending on local restrictions but will wait to publish the schedule until it can offer the full winter season, said Watterson.
Southwest is not the only airline adding routes as travelers begin to trickle back onto planes even as fears of COVID-19 remain. Also on Thursday, Frontier Airlines unveiled plans to add 18 new nonstop routes to destinations in Florida, including Orlando (MCO), Fort Myers (RSW) and Sarasota/Bradenton (SRQ), and Myrtle Beach (MYR) in South Carolina.
U.S. airlines have reported an uptick in travelers in recent weeks. On Friday, May 22, at the outset of the Memorial Day weekend, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened more people than it had on any single day since March, when people began staying home in large numbers because of the pandemic. American Airlines reported that its flights were 56% full over the holiday weekend.
But people are not flying everywhere. Those who are traveling for non-essential purposes are predominantly flying to leisure destinations, like beaches in Florida or the open spaces of the Rocky Mountains.
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This is where Southwest sees an edge. The airline is already has a large base of leisure customers who do not depend on, for example, the return of international routes before they resume flying, said Watterson.
Southwest operated just 30% of its normal schedule in April and plans to be flying about half by June. These cuts pushed the carrier known for point-to-point routes that bypass major hubs to rejig its schedule to enable connections over eight key cities, said Watterson. Those connecting points include airports like Baltimore/Washington (BWI), Denver and Phoenix.
That schedule, which was necessary to ensure connectivity to destinations across Southwest's map, will give way to a more normal operation in July, he said.
Related: Southwest Airlines has big plans for its new gates in Denver
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Baltimore/Washington Concourse A extension (opening ~2020), by WSP. #airportarchitecture
Hawaii and international destinations are a big question in mark as Southwest returns to a full schedule. A mandatory quarantine in Hawaii and travel restrictions that vary by country will determine when flights resume, said Watterson. The airline has already pushed back plans to start new flights to Hawaii from June to early July as the state's quarantine remains in place.
“The [Boeing 737] MAX gave us practice… we kind of developed this routine where if we have information we’ll go if not we’ll modify," he said. "That’s essentially what we’re seeing in COVID, if a geography says we’re not ready than we modify the schedule.”
Asked if he had any information on when the MAX could begin flying again, Watterson laughed and said he has stopped trying to guess when the plane will return.
Related: Southwest cuts Boeing MAX deliveries by 75 jets over next two years