Southwest will begin flying to Chicago O'Hare and Houston Bush Intercontinental during the first half of next year, part of a strategy by the carrier to broaden its network during the Covid-19 crisis.
"We will continue during the Covid times looking for network breath to redeploy our people and our aircraft and for new sources of revenue, because ultimately the way out of this is through more flying and more revenue," said Southwest chief revenue officer Andrew Watterson, speaking at the International Aviation Forecast Summit in Cincinnati on Monday.
Flights out of O'Hare will complement Southwest's service at Midway, which is its largest station. Similarly, Southwest will complement it network from Houston Hobby, its seventh-largest station last year, with flights from Bush Intercontinental.
Routes and schedules will be announced in the next few weeks, Watterson said. He added that from O'Hare, Southwest will service destinations to which it already flies from Midway and that from Bush, Southwest will go to destinations that it also serves from Hobby. Adding the second airport in each city will provide convenience for existing Southwest customers in those markets.
The addition of O'Hare and Bush will follow Southwest's launch of Miami service with four routes next month.
Southwest is also introducing service in the smaller markets of Palm Springs, Montrose, Colo. and Steamboat, Colo.
The Dallas-based carrier is currently flying approximately half the capacity it did a year ago but hasn't departed from any stations during the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, Southwest has reduced frequencies on numerous routes.
Watterson said Southwest doesn't expect demand on those routes to recover for years. So, rather than simply parking aircraft, the carrier plans to redeploy its planes and staffing resources into new airports where it sees an opportunity to operate profitable routes. Such deployments, Watterson said, will be low risk, largely because Southwest will begin its service in those airports with flights to its largest stations, where they have an established loyal customer base, and from where they can offer connecting opportunities.
For example, Southwest's first four routes from Miami will go to Baltimore, Chicago Midway, Houston Hobby and Tampa, all airports at which it is the leading carrier.
Along with adding new destinations, Southwest is strategically adding new routes between existing stations as it looks to increase the relative portion of its capacity that serves popular leisure destinations. In November and December, the carrier will fly between approximately 70 city pairs that it had not planned to service, Watterson said.
"The previous routes that we were flying will have reduced demand for a number of years," he explained. "They need less flights than they had in the past. So we need new places to fly. That's why we are embarking on this strategy."