Southwest increases number of routes by 6% but reduces flights by 5%; Denver and San Francisco biggest winners

Image: Southwest celebrate at San Francisco
Southwest flights at San Francisco have increased by almost 50% this year and the number of destinations served has increased from four to six.

America’s biggest domestic airline Southwest Airlines ended 2008 with slightly fewer revenue passengers than in 2007. However, enplaned passengers were almost unchanged at 101.9 million. Revenue passengers counts those passengers who are making connections within Southwest’s network only once. What this difference indicates is that around 25% of Southwest’s passengers are connecting between two or more Southwest flights.

Since 1997 revenue passenger numbers have increased by 75% from just over 50 million to almost 90 million. Apart from last year the only other year which saw traffic decline was 2002 when demand fell by 2.2%

Chart: Southwest Airlines 1997-2008 Annual revenue passengers (millions)
Source: Southwest Airlines website

Denver sees flights double in a year

Southwest currently only operates from 64 airports in the US (Minneapolis/St. Paul will become number 65 in March). Las Vegas remains the airline’s biggest base of operations with over 1,500 weekly departures to 56 destinations. The top five bases have all seen capacity reductions between February 2008 and February 2009.

Chart: Top 12 Southwest airports (Weekly departures)
Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 18 February 2008 and w/c 16 February 2009

Denver’s rapid development has launched it into the top 10 of Southwest’s bases. The number of weekly departures at the airport operated by Southwest has almost doubled from 380 to 750. The number of destinations served non-stop has doubled from 16 to 32.

Overall this February Southwest will be offering over 1,000 fewer weekly flights (a reduction of 4.9%) but the number of airport-pairs served has increased 5.8% from 413 to 437. As a consequence the average weekly frequency on each route has fallen from 27.6 (almost four daily flights) to 24.8 weekly departures.

Image: Southwest plane taking off at Las Vegas
Las Vegas remains Southwest’s biggest base of operations with over 1,500 weekly departures to 56 destinations.

Three-quarters of airports see frequency reduction

Out of Southwest’s 64 airports, 48 have seen flights cut since last February while there has been no change at three airports. Only at 13 airports has the number of flights increased. The biggest winners and losers (in terms of percentage change) are summarised below.

Winners Frequency* % change Losers Frequency* % change
Denver 380/750 +96.4% Ontario 366/289 -21.0%
San Francisco 182/270 +48.4% Detroit 138/111 -19.6%
Indianapolis 116/139 +19.8% Hartford 127/103 -18.9%
Fort Lauderdale 313/349 +11.5% Oakland 938/770 -17.9%
Buffalo 123/133 +8.1% Louisville 136/112 -17.6%
San Antonio 311/329 +5.8% Chicago Midway 1524/1280 -16.0%
New Orleans 233/245 +5.2% Birmingham 182/153 -15.9%
Philadelphia 408/429 +5.1% Nashville 560/474 -15.4%
Austin 322/338 +5.0% Seattle 315/269 -14.6%
Santa Ana 256/267 +4.3% Spokane 107/92 -14.0%
Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 18 February 2008 and w/c 16 February 2009
* Weekly frequency in February 2008 / February 2009
Image: The Southwest Airlines Pigskin Plane
The Southwest Airlines Pigskin Plane Pull takes place at the airline’s headquarters every year. The event, which celebrates the rivalry of the Texas/Oklahoma football game, involves fans of each team attempting to pull an 83,000lb aircraft the fastest.

Apart from Denver it has been a busy year at San Francisco as flights have increased by almost 50% and the number of destinations served has increased from four to six. Two of the airports suffering the biggest reduction in flights are among Southwest’s top eight bases. Oakland sees flights reduced by almost 18% though the number of destinations served has fallen by just one from 20 to 19. Routes to Nashville and Tucson were dropped while Austin has been added.

Chicago Midway loses one in six flights but no destinations

At Southwest’s second base at Chicago Midway capacity has been reduced by 16% with the removal of 244 weekly departures. However, all 47 destinations served by the airline from Midway have been retained though 37 of them have seen frequency reductions. The biggest reduction has come on the route to Las Vegas where the number of weekly flights has fallen from 81 to 62. Only Denver (+13), Salt Lake City (+6) and Buffalo (+5) have seen frequency increases.

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