Southwest Airlines Focuses On Network Restoration, Smaller Markets

Credit: Joe Pries

Southwest Airlines continues to rebuild capacity, remaining mostly focused on resuming service on routes that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and adding capacity on currently-operated routes, according to an airline executive.

“For the next year and a half, it’s just putting the planes back that were already there,” Southwest VP of network planning Adam Decaire told Routes in an interview at Routes World 2022 conference in Las Vegas. “As we start to think about expansion [in 2024], we'll have plenty of options to pick from.”

Modest additions to the Dallas Love Field (DAL)-based airline’s network in recent months have largely involved connecting smaller US markets to major airports. On Oct. 27, Southwest announced three new routes along those lines: Denver (DEN) to Bellingham (BLI) in Washington state, DEN to Myrtle Beach (MYR) in South Carolina and Orlando (MCO) to Des Moines (DSM) in Iowa. The DEN-BLM and MCO-DES routes will begin April 15, 2023, while the DEN-MRY route will commence June 4, 2023.

All three routes will be operated 1X-weekly on Saturdays. Southwest, like several other US airlines, sees opportunities arising from the de-emphasis on regional flying by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines as regional carriers struggle to hire pilots.

“A lot of people didn't think we could get into smaller markets, and we've shown that we can grow those smaller markets and connect them to bigger markets,” Decaire said.

He noted Southwest started service from Colorado Springs (COS) in Colorado in March 2021. The carrier operates 13-15 departures daily from COS, making it the airline’s largest operator. Southwest offers nonstop flights from COS to Dallas Love (DAL), DEN, Chicago Midway (MDW), Las Vegas (LAS) and Phoenix (PHX).

Strong bookings at COS were “almost instantaneous" once sales opened for the routes, he added. A good number of passengers in the market “were flying us before” by driving to DEN. The move into smaller markets was an “opportunity we took advantage of during the pandemic–a lot of the markets partnered with us," Decaire said.

In terms of larger markets, Southwest strongholds Baltimore-Washington (BWI), DEN and LAS will continue to be major factors in the carrier’s network planning, Decaire said.

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“Baltimore is going to continue to be one of the biggest places we fly to,” he explained. “It's an important part of our network. We've had a great partner relationship with them for many years and will continue to grow there.” BWI is Southwest's largest east coast airport. It has a market share of more than 70% at the Maryland airport.

Decaire added: “We anticipate continuing the growth in Vegas, flying people from Las Vegas to many locations. In Denver, there are big opportunities to grow. There are lots of new gates that just came online.”

DEN opened 16 new gates in May on its C Concourse for Southwest.

Pilot training backlogs continue to suppress growth, he said, but the carrier believes it has now hired a sufficient number of flight deck crew.

CEO Bob Jordan said Oct. 27 on the airline’s earnings call that there is also “uncertainty around the timing of [Boeing] aircraft deliveries” in 2023 that could dampen capacity growth. Southwest is an all-737 operator.

Jordan added: “We plan to allocate the vast majority of new 2023 capacity to network restoration and stronghold Southwest markets, which we consider to be lower-risk growth. We currently expect our route network to be approximately 90% restored by summer 2023 and fully restored by December 2023 compared with 2019 flight levels in pre-pandemic markets.”

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp is a Contributing Editor to the Aviation Week Network.