MIAMI —The fall season may just be upon us, but Southwest Airlines already has spring travel on its mind. On Tuesday, Southwest extended its bookable flight schedule from April 12 through June 3, 2016, unveiling a number of new nonstop routes set to debut in April.
Southwest introduced ten new routes in total, which are listed below from the airline’s press release encouraging customers to “Beat the Heat”:
Beginning April 12, 2016, Southwest will begin offering new nonstop service between:
|Grand Rapids, Mich. and Chicago (Midway)||with fares as low as||$49||one-way|
|Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C. and Atlanta||with fares as low as||$49||one-way|
|Flint, Mich. and Chicago (Midway)||with fares as low as||$59||one-way|
|Dayton, Ohio and Chicago (Midway)||with fares as low as||$59||one-way|
|St. Louis and Des Moines, Iowa||with fares as low as||$65||one-way|
|St. Louis and Wichita, Kan||with fares as low as||$65||one-way|
|St. Louis and Pittsburgh*||with fares as low as||$69||one-way|
|Wichita, Kan. and Phoenix||with fares as low as||$99||one-way|
|New York (Newark) and Orlando, Fla||with fares as low as||$99||one-way|
|Las Vegas and New York (Newark)||with fares as low as||$149||one-way|
*Starts March 10, 2016
As displayed in their press release, Southwest features prices as low as $49 to warmly usher in the new routes. All will commence on April 12, 2016, except for service between St. Louis and Pittsburgh, which takes off on March 10, 2016. Customers must book by next Monday, November 2 to take advantage of the sale fares.
Dan Landson, Senior Communications Specialist at Southwest Airlines, pinpointed connecting “Customers to what’s important in their lives” as the overarching goal behind the changes. In an email to Airways News, he cited “changes in travel patterns” as the primary driver of the new routes, with Southwest responding to maximize connecting options for its passengers.
“We’ve changed our models in some cities to reflect changes in travel patterns by Customers,” Landson said, “and we’re offering either new or increasing existing service to destinations where they’ll have more opportunities to connect to even more cities than with their current service offerings. Existing cities on our network map have been successful with this model and so we are confident in this being a good path.”
Southwest’s new additions seem to emphasize operations in St. Louis (STL) and Chicago-Midway (MDW), two of the airline’s larger focus cities within its network. Six of the ten routes noted above involve service to one of these two airports, traditionally centers of activity for Southwest. With many of the routes originating from smaller communities, they appear designed largely to feed Southwest’s focus cities and to facilitate more convenient connections nationwide for travelers.
Some significant cuts also accompanied the new additions. Several small communities will experience a redistribution of flights, changing at which airports customers will connect along their journeys. In Wichita, Southwest will trade existing service to Chicago and Dallas, for example, in favor of new flights to St. Louis and Phoenix, effective next April. Similarly, the airline plans to eliminate current service to Houston, Baltimore, and Chicago from Greenville-Spartanburg, making way for three new daily flights to Atlanta.
These shifts mainly impact where passengers will meet a connecting flight, rather than dramatically altering the scale of operations locally. Southwest probably maintains internal data that suggest customers would benefit more greatly from connecting in cities associated with the new additions. Broadly, the moves highlight a continuing effort on the part of Southwest to best optimize its route network, especially as the airline continues adjusting to routes acquired during the merger with AirTran.
Some other areas will bear more pointed drawbacks. Southwest cut a variety of flights from Akron-Canton, replacing service to Tampa, Orlando, and a newly announced Las Vegas flight with just one additional offering to Atlanta. This brings down the number of daily departures at Akron from six to three, marking an operational reduction. The discontinued flights follow several others trimmed last May, signifying a movement away from Akron on Southwest’s part.
Akron represents an example of an airport formerly served by AirTran and folded under the Southwest wing. The airline may have determined that it could not support regular flights to the eliminated cities with large Boeing 737’s, and resultingly chose to route all Akron-area customers through Atlanta, from where Southwest fields nearly forty nonstop flights. In addition to 737’s, AirTran had flown smaller Boeing 717’s in its fleet, which could have previously made the routes economically viable. Filling more point-to-point oriented flights with 737’s probably posed more of a financial challenge for Southwest.
Moving forward, Southwest will most likely continue evaluating the performance of its route map, particularly as it relates to flights lingering from the days of AirTran. Some cities may experience a simple reallocation of service, while others not meeting profitability standards could eventually face the ax to bolster service elsewhere.
Another route also stands out notably from Tuesday’s announcement: the airline’s Pittsburgh – St. Louis flights, the early bird of the group.
The new route manifests a competitive response to holes left by consolidation. While Southwest continues to modify its own route network after merging with AirTran, it rushes to bulk up service in areas suffering from consolidation at other airlines.
Particularly, Southwest’s linking of St. Louis and Pittsburgh comes as American Airlines plans to discontinue the route in November. US Airways formerly maintained a hub in Pittsburgh (PIT), though the airline opted to dehub the facility years ago in response to stumbling economic conditions brought about by the 9/11 attacks. Now completely absorbed under the American Airlines brand, Pittsburgh offers little importance to the combined airline, leaving the area thirsty for non-stop service which Southwest hopes to quench.
Southwest executives have recently touched on the idea of potentially growing Pittsburgh into a focus city, which the addition of nonstop flights to St. Louis would certainly support. Back in May, Southwest’s senior director of network planning Dave Harvey spoke confidently of the airline’s future in Pittsburgh, seeing ample “upside potential to take our relationship [with the airport] to the next level.” Should Southwest decide to ramp up operations in Pittsburgh – which Harvey deemed only a “matter of size and timing at this point” – it would primarily look to “round out” its nonstop portfolio, offering service from the top fifteen to twenty origin and destination (O&D) markets, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Currently, Southwest flies nonstop from Pittsburgh to fifteen destinations, fourteen of which it operates on a year-round basis. However, with five of those fifteen cities in Florida, the airline would likely attempt to broaden its reach a bit should it ultimately designate Pittsburgh as a focus city in the future.
The new flights between St. Louis and Pittsburgh may represent just one phase of gradual expansion at the old US Airways stronghold. Historically, Southwest has filled many of the gaps left by airline consolidation, similarly addressing vacancies left by American in St. Louis, among many others.
With the holidays on the minds of many, Southwest is springing into action, gearing up for post-winter travel. Fliers should take note of Southwest’s recent adjustments as they pack their bags and “Beat The Heat.”