Southwest Airlines to serve Chicago O’Hare and Houston Intercontinental in 2021

Southwest Airlines said it will start operating to the primary airports in two key cities in its network, Chicago and Houston, in the first half of 2021, after years of serving the secondary airports in both markets.

Southwest started operating to Chicago Midway Airport (MDW) in 1985 and the Windy City’s second airport has become a critical cog in its network. The airline dominates the airport, operating more than 95% of MDW’s departures, and noted that it has more than 4,800 employees based in Chicago. In the first half of 2021, it will start flying into Chicago O’Hare International (ORD) as well. It has not announced specific ORD routes yet.

Similarly, Dallas-based Southwest will start operating from Houston Intercontinental (IAH) in the first half of 2021. It has not used IAH since 2005. The carrier has a large presence at Houston Hobby Airport (HOU), where it operates a terminal that serves as a de facto hub for its international services to the Caribbean and the northern part of Latin America. It has 4,000 employees based in Houston. As with ORD, the carrier has not yet revealed specific routes it will operate from IAH.

The airline had long shied away from operating at the main airports in cities with multiple airports, citing concerns about congestion and the need to turn around its aircraft quickly. But that no longer appears to drive Southwest’s thinking regarding Chicago and Houston—having a presence at the larger airports in both cities has become important for the LCC.

“Southwest owes decades of success to our employees and customers who have supported our business in Chicago and Houston," chairman and CEO Gary Kelly said in a statement. “Today’s announcement furthers our commitment to both cities as we add service to share Southwest's value and hospitality with more leisure and business travelers.”

Commenting on the move, the Chicago Department of Aviation said: "This is a vote of confidence in our city and in O'Hare, and we're excited to build on 35 years of partnership with Southwest Airlines."

Meanwhile, Houston Airports director of aviation Mario Diaz applauded Southwest's decision "to grow air service offerings in Houston during a time when air carriers are doing what they can to recover from the effects of the pandemic and once again reach a point of profitability."

“Southwest Airlines will continue its exceptional service and operations out of HOU, and its new service out of IAH will only complement its current offerings," Diaz added.

Chicago-based United Airlines has hubs at both ORD and IAH, while Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines uses ORD as a hub.

Photo credit: Joe Pries

Aaron Karp

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