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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51 comments on “Southwest Leaves Three More Small Cities

  1. I would assume CRP would survive, that is one of those legacy WN airports. I think they only fly there from HOU, so that isnt a big deal on the network.

  2. Minor note on the map: I believe AirTran served Lehigh Valley International (ABE), not Allentown Queen City (XLL).

  3. The pullout of Key West is disappointing. When AirTran started service to Key West, it was the only major airline competition to Delta (Continental and American served EYW with commuter flights from Florida airports). As a result, Delta dramatically lowered its fares on the ATL-EYW route. However, EYW’s short runway meant the 737-700 was the only viable large jet on the route. I do not think the 717 had the takeoff performance required, even for the short flight to Orlando. Delta had the advantage of putting the 737-700 on the route during peak periods, and the CRJ on the route during non-peak periods. AirTran did not, and Southwest does not, have that luxury.

    Now Delta again will be able to charge a premium for its nonstop from Atlanta, and people with less money will have to fly into a south Florida airport and take a commuter flight to Key West.

    1. And yet Cape Air just dropped their Ft. Myers (RSW)-EYW flights so that option has disappeared as well.

  4. Seems to be any airport/service can be axed anytime now a days. If the $$$ isn’t there the smart airlines pull out and put their planes somewhere else. Makes sense for that airline, but not to the traveling public who may loose service or as was mentioned now have to pay more to travel on the last carriers in a market. But business is business and that’s what must be done these days.

    1. Well, we don’t have a right to convenient or cheap air travel. The other option is to go back to the regulation days where we have what I’m told is a more “fair” playing field, but everyone suffered as prices were higher.

      1. We needed to go back to full regulation of airlines twenty years ago. Deregulation is a failure as seen by both the decline in the service level of the remaining airlines and the bankruptcy and elimination of a score of once well-regarded airlines. It is only a matter of time before we only have one major airline flying in the US if we don’t re-regulate soon. We are down to three major airlines now with the demise of the old American Airlines (you can argue four with Southwest, also I know the American name lives on but the surviving company is the old US Airways). The higher fares of regulation are just the price we will have to pay for a safe and stable airline infrastructure.

        1. I don’t see how deregulation is a failure. One of the airlines born with deregulation is now the world’s largest airline – America West. The environment created post deregulation has created niche carriers that provide a service to the sectors of the industry that they serve – jetBlue, Virgin America, Spirit, and Allegiant all come to mind.

          The time of hot meals on fine china served by a stewardess died when Eastern and PanAm shut down. The industry now, I feel, is much better off. It allows those who want to pay more the option to fly with everything included in their tickets, and it also allows those who weren’t able to fly in the past the opportunity to visit family they might not ever see because driving isn’t an option.

          The US airline infrastructure is much more stable today then it was under regulation. Airlines are now forced to operate as a profitable business. If you can’t be profitable, you have to change the way you do business or go out of business.

          1. If by “profitable,” you mean “profitable for several consecutive quarters between episodes of near or actual bankruptcy,” then yes, the deregulated airline industry is comprised of profitable businesses.

  5. I thought WN’s entrance into JAN was nothing more than payback to some politician (Trent Lott?) for his assistance at the time in loosening the Wright Amendment restrictions at DAL.

    1. oldiesfan6479 – That may very well be the case, so it makes it seem even crazier than it took them 16 years to axe it. He left office 6 years ago.

  6. What Xnuiem said – IIRC, CRP has been a Southwest station pretty much as long as there’s been a Southwest Airlines. Service goes back at least to the mid-70s based on this post:

    This does bring up an interesting, larger question though. WN has service to several other small Texas markets besides CRP, dating back to its legacy days as a “Texas Express” of sorts – AMA, HRL, LBB, MAF, maybe ELP depending on how you define “small”. Several of those stations are “puddle jumps” for lack of a better term on the way to somewhere else, especially for routes where WN currently can’t fly nonstop because of the Wright restrictions at DAL (i.e. flights from DAL-DEN sometimes stop at AMA or LBB on the way, and I think some LAS flights even go via MAF). Does this mean even more of these legacy routes are in danger, especially once the Wright restrictions disappear? Or do they remain the exception to the rule, given WN’s considerable brand loyalty in the state?

    1. MeanMeosh – I would think that these Texas cities are likely to lose frequency at least. Some of these routes work because of all the Dallas traffic flowing through. Without that, you’d think there would have to be fewer flights. I’m not sure if any routes would disappear, however. I guess we’ll find out in the next few months.

      1. The rumor I’ve seen is that CRP-HOU will move to CRP-DAL after Wright expires. CRP-HOU is only a 4 hour drive so they lose out to those people, but HOU has the connectivity which is why the flight has stayed there. Once DAL gets the same connectivity it makes sense to not compete with driving.

        HRL will be fine as South Padre is an extremely well known beach destination in Texas. It is close to numerous cities on the border there.

        AMA/MAF – decent oil traffic. But DAL-AMA-DEN and DAL-MAF-LAS is what keeps these at the frequencies we see. Definitely a reduction, but there’s enough traffic for WN to stay in the market.

        LBB – college town. Don’t expect much change here as there’s not many flights that are through here

        ELP – This will take a hit. I see ELP-SAN and some ELP-LAS being reduced. Although it is much larger than the others and sees mainline on other carriers as well. AA’s even got brand new A319’s on this route. Time will tell.

  7. I’ve heard rumblings for awhile that SW will drop RIC, since it was the hub model with Airtran. The planes seem full on the route, but the fares have gone up a lot since they took over the route. Delta must be happy, for sure!

  8. SWA: A two-headed adolescent with an identity crisis? SWA began as a smart, LCC primarily in markets where they could steal a large share of traffic from legacy carriers with little or no competition by under cutting price. They standardized very well and offered basic transport, not fluff. When they finally won a market, they raised their prices. If they lost, they pulled out. Today, they want to be known as a ‘smaller legacy carrier.’ They many not have two heads,, but they are trying to wear two hats; it confuses them and in some markets it hurts them. What began as a great LCC business plan is now so screwed up that even their marketing folks do not seem to have clear objectives. How long can this last?

    1. Didn’t WN start by linking the 3 big business centers in TX? As they expanded the model was point to point flying…and cheap. They also flew into secondary airports to save cost. This model has been imitated the world over to much success.

      Fast forward 30 years and today when I look at WN #1.) they are almost always equally priced OR higher than the legacy, and #2.) to get where I want to be 99% of the time I have to connect in Chicago or Denver.

      I agree that with their size their focus got clouded. They are the #4 legacy carrier out there but just don’t want to admit it.

      1. The difficulty is that the hub system is really an efficient model, and it is difficult with the distance and sprawl of the US to do anything really different without a significant game changer as far as fuel price or technology. And at the end of the day it is less an argument of whether or not a route makes money, but whether it is an efficient use of resources. If an extra flight somewhere else can make a better profit, than that’s where route assignments are going to go.

  9. and this is the airline to whom the DOJ and all the “low fare enthusiasts” bowed to during the recent AA/US anti-merger case. Take away slots from “big bad AA and US” (who now do serve small cities out of DCA) and give them to “golden boys” like WN. So now WN will get those slots and who here thinks they’ll serve Roanoke or Charleston WVA etc….? No…they’ll just overlay other higher density markets. Even though it’s a “bank shot,” the result will still be that other small/medium communities will lose service thanks to WN.

    1. Jon – Well, there are a dozen daily flights from Albany now. You’d think the Florida routes alone would be good for a half dozen flights. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t pull out but it is a bigger market for them today.

  10. How about Akron-Canton? I am surprised that one has survived, given its proximity to CLE.

    BWI is my home airport and since SWA essentially operates a hub here, I am forced to fly them if I want a non-stop flight to many locales. For short-haul flights, no problem, flying across the country with no entertainment or meal options in an often, very crowded and cramped 737, no thank you.

    SWA used to have a very smart strategy of flying into alternative airports (BWI, PVD, MDW, etc.) with more than adequate local markets, while simultaneously syphoning off traffic from legacy carriers because the fares were lower and the commutes to those airports were tolerable. Boston area travelers were willing to drive to Providence or Manchester for substantial savings, for example.

    I have no idea what their strategy is now. As a consumer, I just see higher fares and an inferior product.

    1. They do have the 15 or so channels free with the Dish deal. The few times I’ve flown with them that has been great to be able to watch tv on the flight. The food argument doesn’t hold much water for me. If it is a long flight, pack something to eat or, as I do, grab something at the airport to eat on the flight. The options are usually better on the ground.

      Just my two cents.

    2. MarylandDavid – Akron is quite the rock star market, one of the best AirTran had. Southwest has 11 flights a day today, and I’d be surprised to see them pull out, even with a Cleveland presence.

      1. hell, they’d probably pull out of CLE before CAK! CLE has had only the most basic WN service in terms of destinations (BNA/BWI/MDW/Florida) for quite some time now. i imagine hopkins is willing to practically give them those four cruddy gates for nothing just to keep them flying there.

  11. Welcome to the new world. The airline route/service map for the legacies and WN will be something to see down the road. Lots of small- and mid-sized cities will have absolutely NO service. And, with those once-great roads being taken over by more and more potholes, well…!

    With the new route map, carriers will be able to push out $800 fares to just about anyplace. Who at these small cities can afford this for too long? And no pleasure fliers.

    Cities and States with any desire for air service will have to come up with some great, new ideas (and money) to find reasonably priced commercial air. How about some State or regional subsidized service from a single carrier covering two, three, maybe all of the states’ (EAS, small, and medium) cities to one or more legacy hubs and to WN? Maybe funded by the Feds under something called “EAS-expanded.”

    Probably not, but should be a fun time for the bloggers and those of us just looking in!

    1. I think it is very tough to provide services to everyone. I live in Phoenix, so I have a ton of options. I have family in the middle of Kansas and they have to drive 3.5 hours to Denver for flights. But, they choose to remain in their small town. I don’t think airlines or governments should have to subsidize for those that live in small communities. If the airline can’t make money, they should pull service.

      1. It is tough to provide service to rural areas or small terminals, however, not impossible. The drawbacks are many and you do end up paying.

        The cramped quarters of a Beech 1900 or Cessna 206, even if it is 30 to 45 minutes, and suffering a walk across the unprotected tarmac in January, makes one appreciate a nice 737. But, such ill treatment is worth it to a small town person who would rather not sit in traffic, dodge deer on the Interstate, or pay obscene parking rates in some big city.

        Indeed, SWA has a choice, they can serve a city, and if they do not make sufficient return, pull out. I suppose the same will happen in DSM as the market is not big enough in my opinion. But in smaller towns, there should be an option of sorts.

        My last trip on SWA this past June was a bargain compared to the legacy carriers. In several cases, by over $200. After all those years of suffering Delta in MSP, Southwest is such sweet revenge.

      2. Yeah! Those crazy people who have jobs and families in rural areas, they don’t need to be equitably treated in the nation’s infrastructure plans! This is why we have services such as EAS, because despite claims of regionalization from many, the reality is that there are people in geographical locations that are incredibly long distances from any airport that could be served in reasonably profitable fashion.

  12. I hope Southwest stays at ROC. I hope their planes are full enough to justify their service. Southwest and Jet Blue are the only carriers flying out of ROC that won’t force you into a regional jet (ugh!)or a turboprop (double ugh!!).

      1. United, US Airways have ONE mainline flight out of ROC daily. Delta to their credit has 4 flights on the ROC-ATL route on mainline equipment. Everything else is on regional aircraft. That’s why I’ll fly Jet Blue or Southwest before any of the legacy carriers.

  13. WN’s planes were simply too big to sustain service at EYW which needs to be either as a spoke from hub/spoke legacy or as a 3x/4c weekly like allegiant. in addition, it would helpful if the airline could aggressively up/down gauge the a/c seasonally.

    ECP will be same as above. once the incentives/free money from st joe paper company stops, stick a fork in their WN service, it’ll be done.

    1. WN has already terminated their St Joe subsidy (either earlier this year or last year). The terms of the subsidy wouldn’t allow concurrent service at Pensacola, so it appears WN wants to serve both.

    2. Bill from DC – As Bravenav says, the subsidy is gone in Panama City. I believe the service has performed very well.

      1. Interesting, thanks for the correct info. Seemed like a long shot to many north floridians but kudos to them, ECP and WN for making an extremely unique circumstance work… at least for now!

  14. The CW seems to be that Southwest may have cut these three cities for aircraft to fund their new LGA slots.

    So since Southwest has said they intend to bid “aggressively” for DCA slots should more smaller (ex-Airtran?) cities now be quakin’ in there boots?

  15. This is from the press release when they decided to serve Key West in November of 2012:

    “Our arrival in Key West represents one of the true benefits of our integration with AirTran Airways, allowing us to continue to bring low fares and legendary Customer Service to the Florida Keys,” said Kevin Krone, Southwest Airlines Vice President Marketing, Sales, and Distribution. “Key West is a destination our Customers have been eagerly awaiting.”

    Customers were eager, and filled the planes to make SWA well on their way to being the #1 carrier to Key West in only their second year of service…and they say no profitability? I always thought Southwest was different, that they meant what they said about really becoming a part of the community, to build a loyal customer base and offer continued good fares and service….maybe one day we will read from their press release page that they have merged with United or joined the American/Former USAir group, because of actions like these, that’s where they are headed. Kill off the smaller destinations for the big markets. Speaking of the American/USAir merger, is it a surprise that the same day they announced their cancellation of service to KW, they picked up more slots in NY City? So much for being different that the rest. That press release may be coming faster than we think.

  16. It seems to me that serving the smaller cities with a combined SW/AT view is something that had to be carefully looked at. You can’t bid on LGA and DCA slots, win the bid, keep the current service of the combined carriers, get rid of the 717, defer 737 orders, keep taking only -800s, defer retirements and think your going to be able to continue to serve every dot on the map just by adding 6 seats to some of the fleet. Thats in addition to announcing additional service to international destinations in FLL, building a new terminal at HOU for international service, and getting read to serve international markets from other domestic cities. There just aren’t enough aircraft-hours in a day. Sorry to see these cities fall off the route map, but I know they will be replaced with many more.

  17. To go back to the previous thread on ROC, I dont see SWA pulling out any time soon. They currently maintain 90%+ Load factors (According to jetstreamGS annual statistics). Along with that, they are currently adding 2 more daily flights into the ring during high demand periods for MCO and TPA. There has also been speculation for a while on SWA adding an FLL or LAS route.

    It could work.

  18. Big profits await the airline that solves the problem of the small market. Perhaps the 737-900 should be a downsized, fuel-effficient, high-tech version of the 737-500. Perhaps the solution is turnaround service from hubs to small cities. For example, FLL-EYW-FLL, or ATL-JAN-ATL with no refueling, no restocking, no change of crew, even no checked baggage.

  19. Can anyone confirm that SW has discontinued service from Pensacola to Orlando beginning Dec 28, 2014?

  20. Southwest needs to do more to make connections work @ PNS!
    They are decreasing their daily flights to 2 from January 1, 2015 till March 7, 2015..
    2 flights doesn’t provide a lot of connection opportunities for passengers.
    Southwest should expand its booking system..For consumers can book a Southwest flights anywhere on the web. (kayak/travelocity etc..)
    And I find it extremely frustrating when I try to book a Southwest flight from PNS to GEG (WN City). I get an error…Invalid route with departure city.. Or PNS-BOI…Get this error..Published scheduled service between (Pensacola – PNS) and (Boise – BOI) does not begin until 03/08/2015. Please select an alternate date or choose another origination/destination. Please visit the Southwest Airlines interactive route map for alternate choices. (SW100101-2e7uazyPSUSg7FkxAw2aDw)
    Fix Your Airline Southwest!!

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