Southwest Leaves Three More Small Cities

Southwest continues to struggle to find a way to serve smaller cities. After axing a ton of service to small cities when it took over AirTran, I thought Southwest was done. I was wrong. Now Branson, Jackson (MS), and Key West are getting cut.

There was so much promise when Southwest decided to buy AirTran. I figured with a new smaller fleet of 717s and a look at AirTran’s alternate sub-daily service model in small cities, Southwest might find a way to expand its ability to serve those communities. Instead, Southwest has walked away from nearly every small market in the AirTran system. A couple more that survived are now on their way out.

Think I’m exaggerating?

View Southwest’s Abandoned AirTran Cities in a larger map

That is the carnage map. I don’t really count Miami as a small city, so that leaves us with 13 small cities that Southwest has left in addition to the three that were just announced. What’s up with these three cities? Why did they last longer than the rest? Let’s take a look.

Branson was always a strange market, and I was surprised that Southwest picked it up from AirTran. Branson is a privately-funded airport and because of that, it has been creatively aggressive with using all kinds of incentives to lure service. It could offer things like route exclusivity if it wanted, and that brought some service in.

AirTran and Sun Country were the first to fly to the airport, but Sun County pulled out quickly. Frontier came in with Denver flights and maintains those today. But AirTran also stayed in and remained the largest player at the airport.

So it must have been a relief when Southwest announced it would keep AirTran’s Branson service. I can only imagine the incentives that were offered to keep the airline there. Today, Southwest serves Chicago, Dallas, and Houston from Branson but it only has 4 flights a day in total, all using outsourced ground crew.

Apparently the combination of bigger 737s (AirTran used 717s on at least some flights) and the extremely low frequency was enough to do Southwest in. This is a market that’s probably best served by ultra low cost carriers like Frontier on a seasonal, infrequent basis.

Jackson is unique in that it wasn’t an AirTran market but actually joined the Southwest network back in 1997 with 8 daily flights to Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, and Orlando. Today, Jackson has lost half its service with only 4 flights a day to Chicago, Houston, and Orlando.

This is a huge blow for the already-suffering airport. Not only is Southwest responsible for a quarter of the service at the field, but it also employees 31 people. That in itself might have made the costs too high to continue the service. It’s hard to run only 4 flights a day and have to pay a full complement of staff.

But Jackson is just not a big market with around 600,000 departing passengers a year. It came into Southwest’s system at a time when it was pushing into smaller markets, before it decided that big business markets were the way forward.

Key West
I found it strange that Southwest even tried to make this former AirTran market work. After all, Southwest long ago decided that it wouldn’t continue service to Sarasota, and that’s a bigger market. Both suffer from the same problem of high seasonality.

Key West Traffic

As you can see, traffic is very strong in Key West in the winter but it drops precipitously in the summer and into the worst month of the year for Florida, September.

This kind of seasonality kept Southwest out of Sarasota, but maybe Southwest was lured to Key West thanks to the lack of an alternate airport. (Sarasota is just an hour’s drive south of Tampa whereas Key West is 3 hours southwest of high fare Miami or 3 and a half hours away from low fare Ft Lauderdale.)

Either way, Southwest’s current meager service with 3 daily flights to New Orleans, Orlando, and Tampa isn’t cutting it.

Southwest is at least leaving these markets gracefully. It will continue to serve the cities with a full schedule through June 6, 2014. It isn’t selling tickets for travel beyond that point yet, so all current bookings will be valid for travel.

What does this mean for other small cities in the Southwest network (the few that are left)? Well, Des Moines, Pensacola, and Portland (ME) only have 3 flights a day today, but Southwest apparently sees more opportunity there than in these other cities. Beyond that, there are a handful of cities with five daily flights — Corpus Christi, Flint, Grand Rapids, Greenville/Spartanburg, Panama City, Richmond, and Wichita.

Will those all make it? So far, yes. But it will be interesting to see if Southwest can find a way to make these cities work better than the ones it has shed so far. Otherwise, they’ll end up just like the rest.

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