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

Sept. 24, 2020
6 min read
Southwest Airlines helps BWI dominate DC area as coronavirus shakes up US airports
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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

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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 Southwest Boeing 737s lined up at Baltimore/Washington International Airport. (Image by Edward Russell/TPG)

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The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

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  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

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  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
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  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023