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Southwest Announces New International Service, Buries Route and City Cuts

It looks like Southwest has decided to take a cue from the old school PR handbook by making a big splash over new city and route announcements while quietly slipping in cuts to other cities and routes. There are a lot of changes with the schedule for next summer and we’re really starting to see the AirTran merger impact. Some changes, like the new international flights, will be cheered while others including more small city cuts . . . not so much. Let’s dissect this.

Southwest Choose Bigger Cities

Last Friday, AirTran (not Southwest) put out a press release announcing that it would pull out of five cities by next June. Four of those don’t have Southwest service so they will really be losing out on low fare service. I’m sure the timing of this announcement was not a coincidence – companies put out release on Friday with the hope that the news will be forgotten by Monday.

This strategy became quite clear when Sunday afternoon, Southwest announced it was adding a bunch of new routes to its network, including a lot of international. The talk was all around all the new things that are coming, but the new schedule also slipped in some bad news on some routes, with some big cuts. This wasn’t discussed at all, and while Southwest usually puts out a full PDF file with all changes, it opted not to do it this time. I’m not a fan of the new opaque strategy here.

The story you see picked up most is Southwest going international. I’ve seen headlines like “AirTran to add routes to Mexico, Puerto Rico” or “Southwest’s Airtran Adds New International Routes.” Great news indeed, but it’s too bad that people aren’t really looking at all the changes.

First let’s talk about the cities that AirTran will abandon. Three of those are small cities: Bloomington/Normal (IL), Charleston (WV), and Knoxville (TN). We’ve already seen four other cities lose out from this merger with Asheville (NC), Atlantic City (NJ), Newport News (VA), and Quad Cities/Moline (IL) going away in a previous announcement. I can’t imagine we’re done. I’d imagine that Allentown (PA), Branson (MO), Harrisburg (PA), Huntsville (AL), Lexington (KY), Pensacola (FL), Portland (ME), and Rochester (NY) are all very anxious right now. Hopefully some will stay in the network, but I would be surprised if all did. Southwest’s model just isn’t built to serve small cities the way AirTran’s was.

AirTran will also pull out of Miami and Washington/Dulles. In Miami, it’s a cost issue. That airport is absurdly expensive and has been involved in one debacle after another when it comes to building new infrastructure. AirTran had already cut back there on its own and Southwest is finally just pulling the plug, as it should. With Dulles, that’s a more curious announcement. Southwest will still fly there, but it hasn’t been able to grow the operation much at all over the years. You would think that Atlanta would be a likely connecting point in the new network, but I guess not. Neither of these are huge surprises, that’s for sure.

But all that was forgotten when on Sunday night, Southwest came out with the news about all its summer schedule changes. The big headline is the welcome news that Southwest is using AirTran to expand into Mexico and the Caribbean, as it has said it would all along. Here’s everything that coming into the network (some are seasonal changes). These are all AirTran except where noted.

  • Baltimore – Branson (Saturday only), Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Seattle
  • Chicago – Oklahoma City (on Southwest)
  • Denver – Akron/Canton, Dayton, and New York/LaGuardia
  • Ft Lauderdale – San Juan
  • Houston – Kansas City, Raleigh/Durham, and Seattle (on Southwest)
  • Las Vegas – Norfolk (on Southwest)
  • Nashville – Seattle (on Southwest)
  • Orange County – Cabo San Lucas and Mexico City
  • San Antonio – Cancun and Mexico City
  • San Diego – St Louis (on Southwest)

First things first. A hearty congrats to the mighty CAK (Akron/Canton) for not only holding on to AirTran service but seeing new, growing flights from the airport. I’ve always been a big fan of that airport, and this is yet another win. It means even more with other smaller cities losing service entirely in the merger.

Also, the Mexico stuff make a lot of sense in general. It’s about time that Southwest started tapping into that. And with Orange County just opening its customs/immigration facility this month, Southwest can finally serve Cabo from there, a market which should do very well. Not so sure about Mexico City from Orange County, however. I see Orange County as a great place for the rich and plastic to fly down to Mexican beach resorts. It’s not, however a big ethnic market and that’s more of what Mexico City needs. I’ll be interested to see how that goes, and I’ll be interested to see how Volaris, Southwest’s partner, feels about these moves.

Now Southwest would like you to think that this is it. No other big changes are happening in the network, but that’s not the case. Along with a roller coaster of frequency increases and decreases in a variety of markets (as usual), there are some routes going away. Some might be seasonal, but I bet not all.

Wondering where those slots are coming from to operate the new Denver – LaGuardia flights? Well, LaGuardia is losing AirTran’s Orlando flights. JetBlue will be happy to hear that one, and it will also be happy to see that Boston to Florida flights on AirTran are gone as well (Ft Myers and Orlando).

We’ll see the relatively recent upstart market of Milwaukee to New Orleans go away in the AirTran network. Southwest is cutting Albuquerque to Salt Lake as well as Midway to Islip. Islip continues to shrink as Southwest gets more traction at New York City airports.

So, while there is some positive news here that shows the direction of this merged airline, there is going to be some pain as well. In particular, the small cities left in the AirTran network should be really feeling nervous about the whole thing.

[Original photo via Flickr user dougtone/CC-SA 2.0]

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