Southwest used to be an airline that added dots in the Continental US to its route map at a torrid pace, but that hasn’t happened in a long time. After the AirTran merger settled, Southwest’s new cities focused on flying over the water — think the Caribbean, Mexico, and most recently, Hawai’i. Since 2014, in fact, only two dots have been added within the lower 48: Cincinnati (to replace AirTran’s Dayton) and Long Beach. Then the pandemic hit, and Southwest started going into overdrive once again.
This year, Southwest has added a pair of ski resorts in Hayden/Steamboat Springs and Montrose/Telluride. It added heavy leisure destinations in Miami and Palm Springs. Now it’s adding two more, and these look different. Chicago/O’Hare and Houston/Intercontinental will join — or in Houston’s case, rejoin after a 15 year hiatus — the list of Southwest airports in the first half of next year.
This is Different Than Miami
O’Hare and Intercontinental are obviously completely different than Steamboat, Montrose, and Palm Springs, but on the surface there are some similarities to Miami. These airports are all the primary airports serving each metro area. Southwest, meanwhile, has long had a major presence at the secondary airports in each.
According to 2019 Cirium schedule data, Southwest’s largest operation by seats was Chicago/Midway airport with more than 12 million on 218+ daily departures. Hobby was ranked seventh with nearly 9 million seats on 159 daily departures. Fort Lauderdale was sixteenth with nearly 4.5 million seats on almost 80 daily departures. That is where the similarities end.
South Florida is much more of a destination compared to the other two. In fact, turning to Cirium once again for 2019 DOT O&D data — it’s like an addiction that I just can’t (and don’t want to) quit — you get this chart:
2019 Domestic Southwest Passenger Behavior by City
Compared to the others, Fort Lauderdale has a much lower percentage of connecting traffic and a much lower percentage of people starting their trips from South Florida. In other words, Fort Lauderdale is a destination that thrives off the inbound traffic strength of Southwest’s network. (And by the way, including international traffic doesn’t change any of the underlying points.)
In that context, Southwest knows that there is leisure demand and not much business demand right now. Why not take a swing at Miami and get people who want to go there from around the Southwest network? Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. But it doesn’t require much of a local effort to make it work.
Chicago and Houston are completely different. Because of the connecting traffic, they can serve more cities with more frequencies from their big Midway and Hobby operations respectively. That combined with the solid local base makes those ideal hub airports, even if Southwest doesn’t technically have hubs.
Intercontinental and O’Hare won’t have connecting traffic, so they will have to rely on local traffic alone. I have a hard time believing that most tourist traffic inbound to those cities really cares which airport they use. Midway and Hobby are more convenient to the center of town anyway. And those who live in Chicago and Houston who find north side airports more convenient aren’t going to flock to Southwest in droves when American and United have much more robust schedules with far more destinations.
That means this will rely on inbound business travel, those visiting family and relatives, and the few north-siders who are just looking for something cheap and convenient. Is there really enough of that to support this?
We do need to remember that Southwest recently turned on full participation with the Amadeus and Travelport GDSs. The airline is making a business play, and serving multiple airports in a single metro area might help. Or it might not. There are different views.
Flipping the Script on Secondary Airports
Delta and Southwest seem to be in the same camp. They like to serve multiple airports in a region. Delta serves DFW and Love Field, O’Hare and Midway, Intercontinental and Hobby, and plenty more in the LA, San Francisco, and New York metro areas. It sees value in blanketing a metro area where it doesn’t have a monopoly position. The airport flexibility helps give it a leg up on fighting for the traffic that’s not loyal to one of the big guys in each area.
Delta, however, doesn’t feel that way in its dominant hubs. It wasn’t interested in serving Paine Field in Seattle, and it fought against a second airport even existing in Atlanta. It pulled out of Worcester (MA) this year and got rid of Providence service through the winter. Sure it serves multiple airports in New York and LA but those are much more fragmented markets with massive levels of competition.
Southwest is going in the opposite direction. It is pulling out of secondary airports in places like New York (where it ended Newark service) but it’s bulking up in cities where it has a dominant position in the other airport already.
Then there’s United and American which have walked away from secondary airports more often than not. Neither serve Dallas/Love Field or Oakland anymore. United isn’t in Long Beach
and opted not to go to Paine Field despite saying it would fly there originally. [Updated: It was Southwest backed out of flying to Paine, not United.] It also hasn’t served Midway since Ted was there in 2006, and it’s not in Hobby either. It’s just a difference of strategy.
An Oakland vs San Francisco Dynamic
To try to understand what works for Southwest, we need to look at parallels, and perhaps the closest is what Southwest has done in San Francisco. Oakland is a massive operation for the airline, but it also returned to SFO back in 2007. That was right when Virgin America started flying, which I assume was not a coincidence. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of noise here thanks to the Great Recession, but still…
Southwest Oakland/San Francisco Flight Operations
You can see Oakland coming down significantly in 2008, but that was the Great Recession so it’s no surprise. You can also see that in the last few years, Oakland has grown flights and destinations once again while SFO has remained relatively flat.
Today in the pandemic world, SFO has flights to Burbank, Chicago/Midway, Denver, Las Vegas, LAX, Phoenix, and San Diego. In other words, it looks like a lot like a secondary airport in LA (Burbank, Ontario, etc) or elsewhere while Oakland remains the primary. But SFO has struggled in the shadow of its bigger brother in the East Bay in most respects, including fares…
2019 Southwest Average Fare
Is this the model for Houston and Chicago? It doesn’t look like a particularly attractive one. Then again, we have to remember that the bar these days is pretty low.
Don’t Raise the Bar
Think about the state of the domestic industry right now. Traffic is slowly creeping back up, but it is well below where it was a year ago. A full recovery is years away. For some airlines, that’s just part of doing business, and the furloughs have started flowing, but that’s not how Southwest likes to operate. It values its people highly, and it doesn’t want to lay them off if it can be avoided. It has excess airplanes with a whole lot of MAX aircraft that are likely to start coming in soon. At the same time, the airline will lose massive amounts of money in the near future, so if it loses a little more on a calculated bet, it’s no big deal.
With that backdrop, it’s no surprise to see Southwest trying something new. At O’Hare and Intercontinental, gates have likely freed up as airlines have scaled back. Southwest does already have a large following in both cities, so it can probably pull somewhat better from the locals than it otherwise might. And it will likely have solid connectivity to the rest of the network, making it easier to fill airplanes with inbound travelers.
The routes won’t start until next year, and Southwest must be hoping there will be some kind of corporate recovery by then. It has worked toward capturing more of that managed corporate travel, and having at least a presence at these airports may help. If this all adds up to even a breakeven operation, that’s probably a victory.
Right now, airlines — well, except for Delta — are trying all kinds of things to see what works. Southwest has been particularly aggressive, and it can afford to do so. I’m far from convinced these airports will work out well, but I can understand giving them a try. There’s almost nothing to lose.