Ever since Southwest first started flying more than 40 years ago, it has been heavily restricted as to where it could fly from its home base at Dallas/Love Field. We are finally on the cusp of those absurd restrictions going away in October of this year, and Southwest is making a huge deal out of it. In fact, Southwest is really dragging this out and announcing changes tiny bit by tiny bit. We got the first piece of the puzzle this week when the airline announced 15 new destinations.
For a little more history on these restrictions, you can read my post here. But basically, Southwest has been restricted from flying and selling tickets from Dallas to anywhere beyond a few surrounding states since its inception. (The only way around it was to use small airplanes with 56 seats or fewer, something that never fit Southwest’s model.) In 2006, an agreement to lift these silly restrictions was finally reached. But the timeline for implementation was excruciatingly long.
In the agreement, Southwest could instantly begin selling tickets beyond the surrounding states. Previously, if you wanted to fly to LA from Dallas, you would have to buy one ticket to El Paso or Albuquerque and then a separate one to LA. In 2006, you could finally buy a single connecting ticket for the first time. It’s insane that these rules existed, right?
But the big change won’t occur until October of this year, eight years after the agreement was signed. This October, Southwest will be able to fly nonstop from Dallas to anywhere in the US. (There is no customs and immigration facility, so no international flying will be allowed.) As you can imagine, this is a huge change and will create real opportunity for the airline.
Today, Southwest flies nonstop from Dallas to 18 cities with 125 to 130 daily departures. We know now that on October 13 when the Wright Amendment lifts, Southwest will add Baltimore, Denver, Vegas, Orlando, and Chicago/Midway. Then on November 2nd, the airline will add Atlanta, Ft Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York/LaGuardia, Orange County, Phoenix, San Diego, Tampa, and Washington/National.
If I had to pick a surprise here, it would probably be Orange County. But really, nothing is a huge surprise. This is exactly how you’d expect this to roll out. But there’s one huge piece missing.
We don’t know the schedules, and we don’t even know the frequency of flights on each route.
This is important so we can know what kind of competitiveness Southwest is aiming for here. Will Southwest be trying to put out a frequency-heavy schedule in all these markets for business travelers? Or will it be a mix?
This question is really important for another reason. While Southwest can fly anywhere it wants in the US, it can’t fly as many times as it wants. As part of the settlement, Southwest agreed to a gate cap. It has only 16 gates, though it will undoubtedly make an effort to get the 2 gates American had to give up to get its merger with US Airways approved. If Southwest can squeeze 10 flights a day off each gate, that means it can’t have more than 160 flights a day.
You can see where this math is taking us. Southwest did announce it would drop the Dallas to Harlingen and Branson flights awhile ago (Branson disappears entirely from Southwest’s network), but even without that, the airline is planning to run about 125 flights a day to 16 existing cities. That leaves only 35 daily flights to play with, and that’s definitely not enough. Cuts are coming. But we won’t know anything more about that until the schedule comes out in May.
We can definitely speculate. Southwest runs six daily single stop flights between Dallas and Denver today. Those go through places like Amarillo and Oklahoma City. There are seven a day to Chicago and those go through places like St Louis and Kansas City. LA gets five through places like El Paso and Albuquerque. You can see how this works.
Once those cities have nonstop flights, then the stopping points won’t be able to support nearly as many flights as they have today.
When May comes, we’ll know more. But I’m expecting that we’ll see some cuts in existing markets while these other markets come online. Let’s talk about this again in 3 months.