Looking ahead, Hawaii, Alaska and South America are increasingly showing up as blips on the Dallas-based airline’s radar screen of possible destinations for future expansion.
And in the meantime, Southwest, is hoping to hang on to its Cuba routes now that President Donald Trump is in office.
“We’re matching our service with the need of our customers,” Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said in an interview. “We’re seeing a lot of demand from customers throughout the country for different cities and different city pairs, and we want to make sure that we’re putting the service on the routes that our customers want to fly.”
Cincinnati had long been one of the largest metros that Southwest did not serve directly. The new flights into Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport will connect to Baltimore/Washington and Chicago Midway airports.
“Ohio’s got a lot of airports that are close to each other and they’re seeing growth,” Landson said. “When we really looked at what we wanted to accomplish in Ohio, we saw some opportunities in the larger cities — Cleveland and Cincinnati — that previously had not been there. Due to the close proximity of Akron-Canton to Cleveland and Dayton to Cincinnati, the tough decision was made to exit those markets in order to make nearby markets more successful.”
Delta Air Lines has a hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport but has shrunk its presence since its 2008 merger with Northwest Airlines.
“With the number of customers there and the changing dynamic of the airport, there was an opportunity where we were able to announce new service and also reach out to the business travelers and get their support to come into the market,” Landson said.
Growth in demand has also prompted Southwest to add flights in San Diego, Landson said. The airline announced Jan. 17 that it will start flying April 25 to Los Cabos International Airport from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field once daily. The airport serves San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas.
Southwest now serves 31 locations from San Diego, where it has been rapidly expanding.
At Dallas Love Field, Southwest’s headquarters, the airline in early January began operating a weekly flight to Reno and a daily nonstop flight to Ontario.
The Dallas-Ontario flight is an example of one that would not have been allowed before the October 2014 lifting of flight restrictions under the Wright Amendment.
During the week, Southwest now offers about 180 daily departures to 50 destinations from Love Field, Landson said.
That compares to 116 daily departures and fewer than 20 nonstop destinations before the Wright amendment’s expiration. The amendment allowed Southwest to fly nonstop out of Love Field to New Mexico, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, but prohibited nonstop flights to destinations beyond those states.
Many factors go into determining new destinations for Southwest Airlines, Landson said.
“We look at it through a couple of different lenses,” he said. “One is, is it a business/financial/economic center? Another is, is it a leisure destination? Or is there a combination of both?”
The Boeing 737 MAX could also open new routes for Southwest when the airline begins flying the new planes later this year.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly has said the 737 MAX could make about a half dozen South American destinations feasible, including Bogota, Colombia.
Southwest has placed 170 firm orders with Boeing for the 737 MAX 8, which has a 175-seat capacity, and 30 firm orders for 737 MAX 7s, which seat 150 passengers, said Steve Jenkinson, who manages Southwest’s Boeing 737 MAX program.
The new planes are roughly 14 percent more fuel efficient and can fly about 500 miles farther than the 737s that are being taken out of the fleet, Jenkinson said.
Landson said Southwest spokespeople can’t comment on future destinations until they are published on the airline’s flight schedule, which currently runs through Aug. 14.
Kelly, at a shareholder meeting in Chicago last year, told the Chicago Tribune that Hawaii and Alaska are both “in scope,” for Southwest.
The CEO made similar statements this month in a brief interview with the Tampa Bay Times after an award ceremony at Tampa International Airport.
"Now we've added flights to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, so our orientation right now is south, but ultimately we're looking to expand in North America," Kelly said. "We'll add flights to Hawaii one of these days, Canada, Alaska and perhaps as far south as South America."
Kelly also said he hopes direct flights between Florida and Cuba — launched in November and December — will remain open under Trump’s presidency. The airline offers one daily flight between Tampa and Havana and flights from Fort Lauderdale to Varadero and Santa Clara.
"Those flights have high demand both from the U.S. and from Cuba, and obviously we're hopeful that we can continue to operate them," Kelly said. "If the government, for other reasons, decides that that's not possible, obviously we'll obey the law, but we're hoping that's not the case."
Recent Southwest Airlines changes:
NEW DESTINATIONS AND FLIGHTS
— Southwest on Jan. 5 announced the beginning of flights to Cincinnati. There will be five daily round-trip flights between Cincinnati and Chicago Midway, and three daily round-trips between Cincinnati and Baltimore. Tickets went on sale last week and flights begin June 4
— The airline is also adding new nonstop service between Cleveland and Atlanta with fares starting as low as $69 one-way. Additionally, the carrier will add a second daily flight between Cleveland and St. Louis.
— In San Diego, Southwest has announced new year-round nonstop service to Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, Utah, beginning June 4, as well as new seasonal flights to Indianapolis, Indiana, and Spokane, Washington.
— In other West Coast changes, Southwest will offer year-round nonstop service between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, and seasonal nonstop service between Oakland and Newark, New Jersey.
— The airline added one round-trip daily between Austin and Panama City, Florida.
— Southwest on Jan. 5 announced flights from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Cayman. Tickets went on sale last week and flights begin June 4.
— On Jan. 18, Southwest announced flights between San Diego and Cabo San Lucas, beginning April 25.
— Southwest last year began flights to the Cuba cities of Varadero, Santa Clara and Havana. The airline offers one daily flight between Tampa and Havana and flights from Fort Lauderdale to Varadero and Santa Clara.
— At Dallas Love Field, Southwest’s headquarters, the airline in early January began operating a weekly flight to Reno and a daily nonstop flight to Ontario.
— Southwest will exit Dayton, Ohio, and Akron-Canton, Ohio, in June, with the start of service to Cincinnati.
— Southwest dropped a route between New York LaGuardia and Indianapolis.
FUTURE DESTINATIONS (tentative)
— Bogota, Colombia
— Other cities in South America
— Additional cities in Canada
(Bill Hethcock - Dallas Business Journal)