Southwest Airlines expands again, adds 2 more new cities

Dec 16, 2020

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Welcome to the Southwest Airlines network, Fresno and Santa Barbara.

Southwest continued its torrid expansion pace during the pandemic, making those cities the latest new dots on its ever-growing route map as it looks to strengthen its grip on California.

The carrier did not specify in its Wednesday announcement when it would begin flying from the cities or to where, saying only service would come during the second quarter of 2021.

With the addition of Fresno (FAT) and Santa Barbara (SBA), Southwest has now added 12 new destinations since the pandemic begin. That’s a remarkable number for the airline, which rarely adds more than two or three new cites to its map during a normal year.

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However, 2020 has been far from normal. Southwest has used the opportunity to push into new markets as many of its rivals have cut back during a dramatic drop in demand during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It allows us to play offense,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said last week during a webinar with The Wings Club of New York. He said that by plugging new destinations — even smaller ones — into the carrier’s unique network, “it really puts us in a different competitive situation compared to the rest of our airline competitors.”

Those comments mirror what Kelly told TPG during an exclusive interview in September.

“These additional dots to the map provide even more sources of revenue here at a time when we really need it,” he said then. “That’s our No. 1 challenge. We’ve cut our expenses. We’ve got more opportunities there. But the real need is, we’ve got to generate more customers and we’ve got to generate more revenues.”

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

The addition of the two California cities comes as leisure travelers — who have made up the bulk of those still flying since March — have increasingly looked to outdoor-oriented destinations that facilitate social distancing. Santa Barbara, nestled along California’s scenic Central Coast, and Fresno — near Yosemite National Park and other outdoor recreation areas — check those boxes.

It’s also an unmistakable move by Southwest to cement its position in the lucrative California market, where it will now fly from 13 cities. The carrier begin flying from Palm Springs (PSP) just last month and has ramped up its presence in Long Beach (LGB) as JetBlue – which had long been that airport’s dominant carrier – abandoned the city in favor of growing its operation at Los Angeles (LAX).

“While other airlines seem to fall in and out of love with the state, we’re focused on increasing the reach of our low fares and flexible policies in places where we expect them to make a difference,” Southwest commercial chief Andrew Watterson said in a statement announcing Fresno and Santa Barbara.

More: Southwest Airlines adds Sarasota, makes it 10 new cities in coronavirus expansion

More broadly, Southwest’s Golden State expansion comes 30 years after it first elbowed its way into the intra-California market. The carrier used the Gulf War crisis and ensuing recession to expand rapidly in the state —a move that eventually forced American Airlines and USAir (later US Airways) to retrench there.

The 10 other new destinations that Southwest has announced or added during the pandemic are: Chicago O’Hare (ORD); Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH); Jackson, Mississippi (JAN); Miami (MIA); Palm Springs; Savannah, Georgia (SAV); Sarasota, Florida (SRQ) and three destinations in Colorado: Colorado Springs (COS), Montrose (MTJ) and Steamboat Springs/Hayden (HDN).

Still, the new destinations come as Southwest – and all U.S. carriers – have reduced their overall flight schedules in response to the pandemic. Southwest anticipates being roughly a quarter smaller at the end of the year than it was in December 2019.

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

Contributing: Edward Russell, TPG. Featured photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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