Southwest’s Long Arc Away from Short-Haul Continues

Southwest

When Southwest first started flying, it was an entirely short-haul airline. This shouldn’t be a surprise, nor should it be a shock that Southwest would begin flying longer distances over time. Despite that, it still makes me do a double take when I see just how much things have changed. I thought you’d enjoy a stroll through the wayback machine with me as we take a look in more detail.

I went all the way back to 1990 using Cirium T100 and schedule data to when Southwest was still a little guy, just barely getting out of its Texan comfort zone with Phoenix flying. Back in May of that year, nearly 90 percent of the airline’s flights were under 650 miles. You can see how things have changed in this chart.

Southwest Pct Departures by Flight Miles 1990 – 2021

Data via Cirium

Not much did actually change in the first five years or in the 1990s at all. When I started college in Washington, DC in 1995, my parents lived in Phoenix and I would go back and forth. Flying Southwest always meant a two-stopper to get to Baltimore back then. I can remember going through Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Omaha, Kansas City, St Louis, Chicago… you name it.

It didn’t change much by 2000 either. Sure, Southwest started dabbling in longer hauls, but it wasn’t until 9/11 that things shifted dramatically.

After 9/11, the massive shift in security procedures really hampered short-haul demand. Those quick trips were no longer so quick. Travelers had nightmare stories of required early airport arrivals, long security lines, general hassles, and eventually… the liquid ban. People who used to fly started thinking, “screw it, I’ll drive.” And Southwest responded.

The next big shift came after Southwest acquired AirTran. That introduced international flights which were naturally longer and that moved the share needle again. It has only accelerated from there.

On the chart, I included May 2021 which is a mostly-final schedule along with September 2021 which wasn’t filed long ago but is more of a wish list of a schedule that will be refined later. As you can see, there is a significant difference in the share of short-haul between these two months. During COVID, short-haul flights have again been impacted with people opting to travel by car even more in order to stay away from others. Southwest obviously hopes some of those short-haul flights will come back, and they will to some extent. But Southwest is now a very different airline.

You’re probably wondering about the detail here. While I can’t go through every route, I did pull some maps together. I would have liked to show 2000 since it was before 9/11, but the Cirium schedule mapper doesn’t go back that far. Instead I compared May 2005 to May 2021. Let’s start with flights under 650 miles.

The first thing that jumps out to me is the inclusion of Denver in 2021 when it didn’t exist in 2005. That was quite the hole back then. You also see the significant infill in the east as the airline kept growing. Then there’s the west and Texas whee it actually looks like connectivity in short-haul land has decreased. (A quick note: I left intra-Hawai’i flying off the map, but it does exist.)

It’s important to remember that Southwest has grown like a weed since 2005. Just because short-haul’s importance in the network has declined doesn’t mean that it has actually cut the number of flights overall. Everything at Southwest has grown, but some areas have grown differently than others.

Now let’s move on to mid-haul flights from 650 to 1500 miles.

Back in 2005, mid-hauls were largely part of an east-west network with the only significant north-south being focused on Florida or Phoenix/Vegas.

Today, well, you can’t even see the routes because there are so many of them. You can, of course, see the international flying that didn’t exist in 2005, but that looks like a rounding error compared to the sheer density of routes within the US.

This shows how Southwest’s network really shines. By connecting all these mid-size cities to each other, Southwest has created a blanket over the US that makes for great utility for travelers in every city it serves. Sure, you can point out some “hubs,” but it really is a mesh that covers the country.

Lastly, we’ll look at the flights of more than 1,500 miles.

You might have expected to see huge growth here, but the primary bump is the addition of Hawai’i and Caribbean flying. Outside of that, sure there are some more routes over the continental US, but it’s not really that significantly different, especially compared to medium haul.

What I notice is the sparsity of routes in the east. Transcon is not in Southwest’s wheelhouse, but take that line from Chicago down and you have a whole lot of west coast flying from there. It’s just those slightly longer flight that don’t quite work as well for the airline.

Back in the day, Southwest was a short-haul airline at heart, but as demand has shifted, it’s the medium-haul flights that have become the new heart of the airline. Despite the addition of some very short-haul flights like Colorado Springs – Denver meant solely for connections, it’s unlikely that the airline’s sweet spot is going to change any time soon.

32 comments on “Southwest’s Long Arc Away from Short-Haul Continues

  1. Yes, 9/11 had a huge impact on Southwest’s stage length. Stuff like IND-STL went from 5 flights a day down to zero. Because Southwest was the short-haul leader, it’s doubtful if any other carrier was more impacted by the aftermath of 9/11 than Southwest. As I remember, Herb himself was appointed to a TSA guidance committee after-the-fact.
    But the real reason Southwest has dramatically moved its stage-length needle is the Boeing 737-700. Southwest was the launch customer of that aircraft and it would be an understatement to say they were involved in its performance specifications. Boeing effectively sun-setted the glorious 757 with the 737-700. The 737-700 can do it all: long-haul, short-haul, short-runway, high density altitude. It’s no wonder Southwest operates nearly 500 of the type. While the rest of the industry used the 737-700 as a niche performer (Alaska, Aloha, Continental/United), it has been and still continues to be the star of the show over at Southwest. 143 seats on point-to-point long-haul works just fine for them, even if it’s too few seats for the Big 3’s pure hub-and-spoke operations. And if the market grows or the -700 is undersized or if fewer frequencies are desired, then Southwest can put a 737-800 on it to pick up the scraps.
    When the 737 and all its iterations are finally put to bed and a final history is recorded, the final accounting of “the DC-3 of the Jet Age” will accurately state that the -700 was the most underrated of that venerable family. It truly has been a game-changer.

    1. Correct and agree that the 737-700 is seriously underrated. But I would argue the 737-700 can do ALMOST everything the 757 could but with compromise. UA’s 757s are typically waving at the 737 from 1500 ft AGL on the parallel runway at DEN when the 737 pilots finally rotate the aircraft.

      1. Chris…..Yes, the elegance, sexiness and hidden brute force of the 757-200 stands alone in both Boeing and all manufacturers’ stable of thoroughbreds. Hands down, the 757-200 is the Secretariat of airliners. However, it will be very interesting to see what a fully-powered 737-MAX7 departure profile will look like. Should be good times for passengers and pilots alike!

        1. Agreed. The 57-200 is a beautiful sexy beast of an airplane. Also agreed it will be interesting to see what a max-7 will do

  2. “Then there’s the west and Texas whee it actually looks like connectivity in short-haul land has decreased. ”

    A good part of that was removing the Wright Amendment restrictions at DAL.

    1. I’d agree. I suspect a significant portion of the bump from 30.2% 650-1500nm in 2010 to 39.8% in 2015 is attributable to the Wright Amendment expiring in Oct. 2014 and WN’s immediate expansion at DAL.

    2. Tory – Yes and no. The Wright Amendment back in 2005 restricted Southwest from selling tickets from Dallas to anywhere outside the permitted states even with a connection. So yes, there were more flights in places like El Paso and Albuquerque, but since it required buying two separate tickets, it wasn’t as big of an impact. I imagine if we compared 2021 to 2010 it would be different, because starting in 2006 they could sell tickets with connections, and that really pumped up those cities.

      Here’s a map of the short-haul western routes that existed in 2005 but don’t exist today: https://bit.ly/3x0HEna

      There are a whole lot of routes in Alaska Airlines’s territory in the northwest plus Salt Lake that no longer exist. Tucson also lost a fair bit.

  3. The biggest reason SWA can fly long-haul is improved technology, as previous posters noted. In 1990, the 737 had an effective range of about 1,000 to 1,200 miles. It was the -500 model that was popular at the time.

    Nowadays, they’re flying the darn thing to Hawaii, even Europe. Nobody dreamed of doing that “back then.” If you flew to Europe, you flew a DC-10, L-1011 or a 747. Charters flew old and tired DC-8s or 707-320s. You went to the west coast on a wide-body or, after the 727-222 arrived, a 727.

    With improved engine technology and more use of lightweight composites comes more opportunity for long-haul.

    Think of it another way — Midway Airlines (remember them?) with their all DC-9-30 and -50 fleet was effectively a Chicago airline flying to other Midwest cities and the east coast. It’s range was Kansas City and/or Denver due to the limitations of the DC-9 and its JT9D engines. Midway would have killed to have a fleet of MD-80s and the range to reach the west coast.

    1. I do remember that about Midway, but I wasn’t aware about there jet limitations. And then they transitioned to a short hall carrier based in RDU using regional jets if my memory serves.

      1. Davy was asking about the original Midway, which went under in late 1991. They flew DC-9’s, a few 737-200’s, and some MD-80/MD-87’s.

        The second Midway, the one you are referring to was truly a mess from a fleet standpoint. But from what I recall, service was reportedly top notch. They started in late 1993 IIRC at MDW using F-100’s. Later on they moved to RDU and flew A320’s, CRJ’s, and finally, some 737-700’s.

    2. Not sure where you’re getting the number from, but wikipedia says that the 737-500 has a range of 2375 nm and the -300 2255 nm (in 1990 and 1984 respectively). That easily covers the whole lower 48 from Chicago although true coast-to-coast flights would be difficult.

      The original 737-200s were much more limited and would have prevented longer flights.

      1. Agreed. His number is not correct. The old US Airways was using 737’s in the 1980’s from PHX-PHL and PHX-PIT.

        The reason has to do with the evolution of Southwest’s business model over the years. Southwest had historically focused on a short haul, quick turn model.

        From what I recall, their quick turnaround times and multiple short segments allowed them to maximize revenue on one aircraft verses flying that same aircraft on one long route.

        As Southwest filled out its route map, costs increased, and turn around times increased, the short hop strategy wasn’t as efficient.

        1. It’s possible those flights utilized the 737-400, with auxiliary fuel tanks not ordered on their 737-300s. As I remember, their -400s had HF radios, aux fuel tanks, and were Class 2 navigation airplanes, used for their long over-water Carribean services.

          1. SawTheMasters – It was a little bit of both. I do remember the 734s, and I flew one TPA-LAX on US. That sounds crazy now, but those could do it easily.

            But the 737-300s had long legs as well, and I knew I had flown it on longer flights. Sure enough, I found these in my history…
            US LAX-PHL 21MAY97 N587US WN BWI-PHX 31MAR99 N632SW HP IAD-PHX 17DEC98 N324AW CO CLE-LAS 03SEP98 N14308 CO LAS-CLE 07SEP98 N12327

            I should also note this insane flight on a 737-200 HP PHX-CMH 30NOV98 N188AW

            That had to run to rotate the 737-200s into the Columbus hub network, and it took weight restrictions, but man was it crazy to fly it for that long.

            I poked around in Cirium and found a few others. Frontier flew Boston –

            1. Great recollection, Mr. Snyder. In a similar vein, I remember flying CLT-LAX in a Piedmont Airlines 727-200. Unbelievable.

  4. Great article. Have never seen Southwest’s routes analyzed like this.
    One suggestion: Might want to show the chronology in years, left to right, earliest to latest, as opposed to the other way around. 99% of charts (at least in the US) read left to right.

  5. Lots of observations made here, very thought provoking.

    My main takeaway – surprised there is not more long haul service from BWI since that is basically their east coast “hub” and largest station east of Midway. Legacies have all retreated to hub service. Even though BWI is closer to me, I still end up at IAD most of the time when I can’t fly from DCA due primarily to lack of options.

  6. I think WN realized that both point-to-point and hub/spoke have clear advantages and disadvantages, and they want a little bit of both. Now that they have a critical mass gate count in enough cities to support a mixture of both, they can offer both non-stops and connections.

    Add Hawaii, Caribbean, the 737-8, no more 737-3/5, and the current position seems logical.

  7. Do a little more research and you may find that, I believe it was an Aviation Week & Space Technology issue, around 1999-2001, with the magazine cover showing an exterior masked cockpit of the nations big airlines side-by-side, picturing B747’s (the aircraft noses only) draped in bandits masks using bandanas (as if to conceal their livery). The big five then, United, Continental, Northwest, Delta and American. Each showing side-by-side B747’s (yes I know they didn’t all fly those) looking like thieves. They, those five, introduced the “ticket head —passenger tax”.
    Those five had transcon non-stops, whereas Southwest took perhaps five hops to go from LAX to BWI. Those five thought they could drive SWA out of the competition by forcing them to pay 5x the taxes. What those five did not count on, SWA’s costs were cheaper to operate (PPM — Per Passenger Mile), and that’s when SWA “was forced into the trascon business”, and long haul was first introduced to SWA.

    1. But they would have still paid the PFC at each airport regardless, correct? Are you referring to a different type of passenger fee or tax? Thanks!

  8. As an fyi, you can look schedule data back to Jan 1, 2000 in Diio Mi by using the Sample Week view.

    On the Sked Mapper input page, you have the choice of what data source to use – e.g., full schedules, sample week, and codeshare.

    Hope this helps.

  9. Neat article and maps–thanks for putting these together! Today, we take it for granted that Southwest rules California. For >1500 miles, the big change that jumps out at me is that in 2005, the western endpoints for long-haul were still very focused in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Just a handful of long flights from OAK, LAX, ONT, and SAN. 16 years later, those four airports have far more transcon or nearly-transcon service, and they’ve added long flights at SMF, SJC, and so many airports in the LA basin that we can’t see the details. Now they really do look like a California airline, but it’s a little startling how recent a development that is.

  10. I look at Southwest’s model and think they are great for intrastate flights, since they have no seat assignments. However, I’d rather fly someone with seat assignments, seats with extra legroom, and other amenities for longer flights. Plus, I really hate 737s and would rather fly someone who doesn’t solely use them.

  11. >I went all the way back to 1990 using Cirium T100 and schedule data to when Southwest >was still a little guy,

    Just curious. How does Cirium have schedule data for Southwest back to 1990? Since Southwest didn’t used GDS back then, I didn’t think anyone other than Southwest would have the data.

    1. Bill – It doesn’t. But DOT T100 data goes back that far so that shows all flights and I could just pull it from there.

  12. I’m sorry but this analysis is meh, you want to see evolution from domestic evolution to longer haul, see what B6 did in half the time of what WN does now, which is still a fraction of what B6 does in term of stage length and international markets. IE, more than double the international flying, went from all economy to a premium transcon class and soon to transatlantic with best in class product, and better more evolved passenger experience, and flies to about the same amount of destinations than WN does with less than half the fleet WN has. Thats a bit more impressive. I flew wn recently and the their product is pretty dull. Just my 2 cents.

    1. I like to think of it as “Southwest is Walmart, JetBlue is Target” – both offer a product that appeals to a certain group of customers. Southwest flies to 111 destinations*, while JetBlue files to 98*, but WN offers more frequencies in most markets while JetBlue generally has fewer, with many markets only served by one or two flights a day.

      I prefer JetBlue myself, and particularly detest “Bingo Boarding”, but I’ve had good flights on both.

      JetBlue also offers more partnerships than Southwest, with both big carriers and smaller ones (I really want to fly Porter for some reason…I just think I’d enjoy an airline that has a raccoon mascot.)

      * – per Wikipedia, these may be inaccurate at the moment due to COVID suspensions (particularly on the B6 side – for example, BTV is included but suspended until next month.

      1. It’s starting to change a little, but my rule of thumb for many, many years has been that if either the origin or destination are more than an hour or two’s drive from an ocean, there’s a very slim chance that B6 flies that route.

        B6 has recently been making more of an effort to fill it in its route map with destinations away from salt water, but there still aren’t a ton of nonstop routes touching those destinations, and even those are mostly to B6’s hubs or FL. For example, B6 only serves 3 metro areas out of ORD (Boston, NYC, Miami).

        /Don’t get me wrong, I like B6 and its product, I just wish they’d be able to serve the interior of the country a lot better.

  13. Sometime around 2002 or 2003 I flew non stop BWI to SJC. My return was delayed a few days because of a massive snow storm. A few feet. Anyhow the only way I could get back was via a very long multi stop route. SJC-San Diego-Phoenix-Indianapolis-BWI. Only had to change plane in PHX. Got to bwi around midnight and it looked like a refugee camp due to all of the flight problems. The piles of snow were huge. Fortunately I parked in a non airport lot where a guy with a front loader vehicle moved the huge pile of snow from behind my car. A very long day.

  14. Overall interesting piece. One thing- on your first chart- the time series from 1990 til now- I was initially a bit confused. Usually chronological time series read from left to right, lowest year to highest. Would recommend reconfiguring.

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