Southwest Airlines helps BWI dominate DC area as coronavirus shakes up US airports

Sep 24, 2020

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Air travel across the U.S. is down dramatically across the country as the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep people at or near home.

But the drop is not evenly spread out, and that’s led to some unusual changes at airports in some parts of the country.

In the Washington, D.C., region, Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) counted more passengers in July than the area’s two other big airports — Washington Dulles (IAD) and Washington Reagan National (DCA) — combined. And in Texas, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) briefly claimed the title of the busiest airport in the U.S. — maybe in the world — as American Airlines focused much of its flying at its mega hub there.

Then there are the smaller outdoors-oriented destinations, like Palm Springs (PSP) and Steamboat Springs, Colorado (HDN), that also are bucking the trend. Both of those airports are well on their way to potentially surpass 2019 flyer numbers before the year is out thanks to new flights from those cities.

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A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 parked at BWI Airport. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson / The Points Guy)
A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 parked at BWI Airport. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson / The Points Guy)


In the Washington region, Baltimore/Washington — or BWI as it is known locally — has long handled a little over a third of the metro area’s flyers compared to a little under a third at both Dulles and National. Then July happened: BWI saw more than 900,000 travelers, down just 64% compared to 2019. Dulles and National numbers were down significantly further with neither airport seeing more than 500,000 flyers in the month.

BWI’s resilience is very much tied to its largest carrier: Southwest Airlines. The Dallas-based airline has cut schedules less than many of its competitors and, even after suspending hundreds of routes, focused flights on eight key bases — or “hubs” at any other carrier — including Baltimore.

“We had to go more hub and spoke-esque” to maintain connectivity across the country on a reduced schedule, Southwest commercial chief Andrew Watterson told TPG in May.

Exclusive Q&A: Southwest CEO Gary Kelly chats about his legacy, new cities and change fees

Southwest’s quasi-hub strategy continues to this day. In October, medium-sized East Coast cities like Albany (ALB), Hartford (BDL) and Norfolk (ORF) will lose most nonstop flights to destinations other than BWI and Chicago Midway (MDW) — another one of the airline’s key bases — Cirium schedules show.

In addition to the hub carrier, BWI also benefits from being the Washington region’s go-to airport for budget carriers. The airport’s second-largest airline Spirit Airlines cut its Baltimore schedule only by about 22% in July; comparable to the level that Southwest cut, according to Cirium. And discounters Allegiant Air and Frontier Airlines actually flew more flights there than last year, though they both still operated less than 100 flights over the entire month.

BWI also had few international flights to lose when the pandemic closed many borders. At Washington’s main international gateway at Dulles, at least 17 foreign carriers had completely suspended operations in July.

Related: Southwest Airlines CEO says Miami push part of long-term strategy, not ‘pandemic play’

The trend of resilient hubs is on display across the country. In addition to Dallas/Fort Worth temporarily capturing the title of America’s busiest, hub airports in Charlotte (CLT), Denver (DEN), Phoenix (PHX) and Salt Lake City (SLC) all saw flyer numbers fall less in June than at other airports across the nation, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics via Cirium.

Resilient passenger numbers, however, do not necessarily mean hub airports are doing well. Even with the busiest-airport moniker, Dallas/Fort Worth has indefinitely shelved plans to build a new Terminal F for American. Other airports are also putting yet-to-begin expansion projects on hold until air travel recovers.

Related: America’s new busiest airport is Dallas/Fort Worth, at least for now

That recovery may yet be years off. Trade group Airlines for America (A4A) expects it to take four years, or by 2024 for U.S. domestic travel to return to 2019 levels. This is comparable to the global forecast from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Already, airlines including Southwest are pulling back flights and preparing for a tough winter ahead. The immediate challenge is imminent expiration of employment and air-service protections under the federal coronavirus aid package, or CARES Act, on Sept. 30. Executives of American, Southwest and United Airlines have said they are likely to suspend or end drop some cities without additional relief if financial losses continue.

Related: Southwest Airlines could cut cities without additional coronavirus aid

But losing air service is not a concern at a hub like BWI. Industry leaders expect the losses to be worst at small- and medium-sized airports in region’s hit hard economically by the virus — not at hubs like Baltimore or larger mid-sized airports.

In October, flights are scheduled to be roughly 59% of what they were a year ago, Cirium shows. This is slightly ahead of national numbers that have flights at 55% of 2019 levels.

BWI spokesperson Jonathan Dean told TPG the airport continues to rank well above its normal placement nationally for flyer numbers. In June, it was the 11th busiest in the U.S. compared to 22nd in recent years.

“We know airline and passenger traffic will rebound, and BWI is working to be prepared for when the industry recovers,” he said. “BWI remains well-positioned when airline and passenger traffic grow.”

Related: American, United say flights to small cities are at risk unless Congress extends payroll program

Featured image by Edward Russell/TPG.

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