We’ve known for a long time that Southwest would be expanding in Long Beach. With today’s schedule extension — sorry for the delay, but this was embargoed — Southwest is doubling its presence with 17 new flights to five new (plus some existing) cities. It’s a big expansion, but will it pay off? Let’s just call it an uphill battle.
Here is the basic plan in map form:
JetBlue abandoned its presence in Long Beach in October, and the slots were reallocated. Southwest will now control a total of 34 of the 53 slot pairs in Long Beach. It has been operating 16 flights a day as of late, so this is a massive increase.
A couple weeks ago, Southwest announced it would start flying to Honolulu on March 11 making a total of 17 daily departures from the airport. That meant there were still 17 slots to allocate. Those will come in two waves, the first in March and the second in April.
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There’s a lot to unpack here. First, every single existing market gets additional frequencies except for Austin. The big winner is Las Vegas, which is clearly where they put airplanes when they run out of ideas on how to fill all these slots. That will have a remarkable 6 departures per day, though to be fair, that was the one high volume market out of Long Beach that worked better than most. Delta and JetBlue were duking it out with Southwest in the past, but both are gone. Maybe Delta will come back in, but I doubt it. Unlike the Salt Lake flights they operate, Las Vegas was pulled out through the end of the schedule earlier this year.
Oakland is the one other existing market that gets more than one extra flight. It gets two. That’s not a surprise, especially since JetBlue used to have a large presence there, and it was a market that had done decently for Southwest pre-pandemic.
Reno is the one new short-haul route, and this makes sense. When JetBlue added that, I was skeptical, but it actually performed admirably for the airline. According to Cirium data, it had the second highest average fare from LGB for 2019 (behind Phoenix) in the area south of Seattle and west of Austin. It’s not a surprise to see Southwest try it. But beyond that, Southwest’s new adds are all about the middle.
I wouldn’t have expected to see Dallas before, because gate space was at a premium. But with pandemic demand levels, it’s easier to put a flight in there. Houston with two a day is more about connections to the southeast. Of course, there is a local market play but with two flights, it’s going to require serious connectivity to work.
Chicago with two a day is a stronger start than I would have thought. But again, it can help with connectivity, this time into the northeast and upper midwest. The big surprise to me is St Louis, the ole’ McDonnell Douglas Express. Cirium data shows that in 2019, there were an average of 4.9 passengers per day each way in that market. Of course, it would have been nearly impossible to fly to St Louis in 2019 since your options were connections on American and possibly Delta if the flights lined up. You can’t really rely on historical data for this one, but knowing that Boeing has a large defense operation near Long Beach, that may be the catalyst.
Boeing does still have a significant presence in both cities, so it’s entirely possible that this is still the catalyst for a successful route. But then again, St Louis is also a great connecting point. With 3 flights heading toward Chicago/St Louis, 4 flights to Texas, and several to Denver/Phoenix/Vegas, Long Beach will have all the connectivity it could possibly want and more. That’s something that was severely lacking with JetBlue, by design.
Notably absent from this list is the Pacific Northwest. Southwest has always been weak on nonstops between Southern California and Portland/Seattle, so it’s not necessarily a huge surprise. Still, I figured with so many slots that we might see something up there. Also, there are no transcon flights. If anyone thought they were going to see Baltimore… well, I’m not sure why you’d think that. It’s all about short-haul and mid-continent, where Southwest performs best.
An LA Basin Comparison
Southwest has said that it could see Long Beach looking like the rest of the LA Basin secondary airports, but it has actually exceeded that at this point. Long Beach now has more flights than Ontario or Burbank. Here’s how I’d characterize all the LA Basin satellite airports for Southwest.
Burbank is a short-haul specialist. It’s the only airport of the four with San Francisco flights. Outside of California/Vegas, Burbank only has flights to Dallas, Denver, and Nashville.
Long Beach is something of a jack of all trades. It has a robust short-haul and mid-continent network plus it’s the only gateway to Honolulu from the region. It has Austin, Reno, and St Louis – an eclectic bunch — unlike any of the other three.
Ontario remains an important regional play, though it has expanded its reach in recent times to include flights to Chicago, Dallas, and Houston. It has no destinations that are unique compared to the other Basin airports.
Orange County is artificially restricted thanks to slot rules, so Southwest has to pick and choose. It has largely focused on important short-haul regional markets, but it is now trying to amp up leisure flying to match expected demand by bringing back Cabo and Puerto Vallarta. It also gets Salt Lake City, an airport that’s not served from any other secondary Basin airport.
All of these airports have service to Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Oakland, Phoenix, Sacramento, and San Jose. The rest have their destinations scattered, ultimately providing a web of options all around the LA Basin. If a Southwest loyalist in Orange County needs to go to Austin, they probably drive to Long Beach. If someone in Long Beach needs to go to Nashville, they probably drive to LAX or Orange County. And if anyone anywhere wants to go to Hawai’i, they drive to Long Beach.
This creates a blanket that helps serve the whole region, but… will it work? As I said earlier, it’s an uphill battle. Long Beach has never done well for any airline, and this is now a whole lot of new flights to a whole lot of places that need stimulation to work. Southwest has a better chance than JetBlue to make that happen, but it’s still not a shoe-in by any stretch. Still, it is a coherent strategy, and that’s something Long Beach hasn’t seen in some time.