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Southwest Airlines to add Chicago O'Hare and Houston Bush Intercontinental

Oct. 12, 2020
3 min read
Southwest Airlines at Chicago-Midway
Southwest Airlines to add Chicago O'Hare and Houston Bush Intercontinental
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Southwest Airlines is on a tear adding new airports to its route map with Chicago O'Hare and Houston Bush Intercontinental due to join next year.

The Dallas-based carrier will add the large hubs of Chicago O'Hare (ORD) and Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH) in early 2021, Southwest commercial chief Andrew Watterson said at the Boyd International Aviation Forecast Summit on Monday. The airline will release service details for both airports at a later date.

The addition of O'Hare and Bush Intercontinental are the latest example of how the coronavirus pandemic is resetting air service in the U.S. Long focused on serving lower-cost secondary airports, Southwest has pushed into several primary airports like New York LaGuardia (LGA) and Washington Reagan National (DCA) during the past decade. Now, COVID-19 is giving the airline an opening to push into more of these primary gateways — an opportunity Southwest has grabbed and run with.

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Since the pandemic began, Southwest has added four new destinations to its map. Flights begin to Miami (MIA) and Palm Springs (PSP) on Nov. 15, and to Montrose (MTJ) and Steamboat Springs (HDN) in Colorado on Dec. 19.

The new cities are not a traditional growth play. Even with the additions of Miami and Palm Springs, Southwest will fly about 38% less in November than it flew a year ago, according to Cirium schedules. December flying will be even lower — though schedules are likely to change — at down 44% compared to 2019 even with Montrose and Steamboat flights.

Instead, the flights are about giving travelers more options and generating more revenue for the airline.

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

"We won’t have a lot of flights but we should have sufficient demand on those flights to contribute cash in this environment,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told TPG of the new Miami and Palm Springs service in September.

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The airline's new cities pit Southwest even more against some of its largest competitors. American Airlines has a large hub in Miami, while United Airlines has large hubs at both O'Hare -- its home base -- and Bush Intercontinental.

Southwest previously ended service to Intercontinental in 2005 after 25 years at the airport. At the time, Kelly cited years of financial "losses" at the airport for the move.

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

Watterson was not forthcoming on what Southwest's future operations from either O'Hare or Bush Intercontinental will look like. Service to both airports will "complement" the large bases the airline already has in both cities at Chicago Midway (MDW) and Houston Hobby (HOU), respectively, he said.

“We want you to go to the airport that’s most convenient for you," said Watterson referring to travelers.

Related: Southwest Airlines seeks historic cuts from unions as it tries to avoid layoffs