Southwest has been busy cutting its schedule like everyone else, and for May it’s down by more than half to about 2,000 flights a day. That’s still a lot, and it’s more than demand would require, but the airline has some unique circumstances that make it willing to operate more flights than it should. One of those circumstances is the lack of a hub-and-spoke model, a strategy it is temporarily giving up on during the May schedule.
To be clear, Southwest is not all-of-a-sudden building mega-hubs. It is just focusing on its largest cities as ways to maintain connectivity throughout the network. Though it is stopping service to all international destinations until the first creeps back into the network in late May, all domestic cities will keep Southwest flights, and that puts Southwest into a tough situation.
For the big three US airlines, maintaining service is a fairly easy process. Just serve the smallest cities from the nearest hub and then connect those hubs to each other. You see that in American’s network, which I analyzed last week. Southwest, however, has more of a mesh network. It has always had some cities which receive a greater focus, like Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, etc. But its real power lies in being able to connect the mid-size cities like Austin or Kansas City with a variety of destinations both nonstop and via single-stop, same plane service. That mesh makes it harder for Southwest to pare its network without impacting these cities.
With this new schedule, Southwest has thinned out those mid-size and smaller markets, mostly linking them with the biggest focus cities that look even more like hubs now than they did before.
Let’s break that down further.
There used to be 15 cities in the Southwest network that served more than 30 destinations. Now there are 10.
These are effectively Southwest’s hubs for getting people around the country. What’s interesting is that some have taken a bigger hit than others. Look at Phoenix and Dallas. They’ve lost the most destinations in this group. That’s primarily because of their geographic position at the extremes.
Take a look at Dallas in greater detail. The green lines are routes that stay while the red lines are routes that go.
The red lines are to the furthest destinations, especially secondary ones. Those are all cities that can be better served through other “hubs” while demand is down. That being said, Dallas remains an important point for the south-central part of the country.
Mid-Sized Cities Get Whacked
The next tier down are cities that had their own sizable operations before, but they’ve seen massive cutting in this round. These are the cities I talked about up top.
The first one at left is the most fascinating. Houston used to have 50 destinations in the Southwest domestic system, but now it is down to a mere 28. What the heck happened? Well, if Dallas was geographically undesirable, Houston is worse. Not only is the international system gone, but nearly every other city in the US is better served from another hub. It lost a ton of short-haul flights to places like Amarillo, Birmingham, El Paso, and Lubbock — because those can be better served through Dallas — in addition to the far-flung destinations.
The rest of these cities were strong in the Southwest network previously, but in a hub-and-spoke type of network, they don’t serve much of a purpose so they’ve seen destinations slashed.
There’s one other thing I want to highlight here, because you won’t see it addressed on any other chart. San Jose got hit hard, but that’s mostly because Oakland lost very little. Oakland didn’t have more than 30 destinations so it didn’t make the top chart, but it still behaves like a regional hub.
Bigger Spokes Connect to Fewer Hubs
All those cuts at the top mean that the rest of the destinations have far fewer points to connect into the Southwest network. Here are some of the larger Southwest “spokes” that used to have between 10 and 20 destinations. Now they all have fewer than 10.
The idea with Southwest’s new schedule is that breadth isn’t as good, but every destination that matters still has multiple points to connect into the rest of the network.
Smaller Spokes Hang On By a Thread
At the bottom end of the spectrum are the smaller Southwest cities that had fewer than 10 destinations previously. They’ve now lost at least half of those.
In these cities, the name of the game is to just keep these cities connected to some piece of the network. Demand is nothing, but at least it keeps some semblance of a presence.
Thinking It Through
This kind of strategy benefits Southwest in a few ways. In a world where Spirit and Frontier are asking the feds to abandon two or three dozen destinations, Southwest isn’t looking to abandon any. You know those airports won’t forget this, and it should allow Southwest to benefit down the line.
Further, having all this capacity in the market that really isn’t necessary may seem like a waste, but it only helps to bleed airlines with worse financials. Southwest can outlast them all, so for the short-term, it might like to turn the screws.
I don’t know how much of this is intentional, but Southwest looks like a hero to its airports, its few remaining customers, and once again, to the government. It can afford to play this game for a couple of months easily. If things get worse, then it might have to shift. But for now, it’s winning the long game by flying empty airplanes all over.