Southwest Airlines will expand to Houston Intercontinental, Chicago O’Hare airports in early 2021

Ella Castle

Southwest Airlines will start service to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental and Chicago O’Hare airports early next year, two markets where it already has a major presence. Southwest, which flies now to Chicago Midway and Houston Hobby airports, is continuing its coronavirus pandemic strategy of flying to more U.S. airports to […]

Southwest Airlines will start service to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental and Chicago O’Hare airports early next year, two markets where it already has a major presence.

Southwest, which flies now to Chicago Midway and Houston Hobby airports, is continuing its coronavirus pandemic strategy of flying to more U.S. airports to capture more customers.

“It’s very common for us to serve multiple airports in the same city, we just had not been able to previously,” said Southwest chief commercial officer Andrew Watterson at the International Aviation Forecast Summit in Cincinnati. “So now with extra aircraft, reduced activity in these airports, we’re able to introduce markets and offer customers a good choice to fly Southwest.”

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines made a similar strategic move last month by introducing service to Palm Springs, Calif., and Miami, cities where the carrier has a major presence at other airports.

Shops line Colorado Avenue in Telluride, Colo.

Houston and Chicago are two of Southwest’s biggest hubs, and the company has long thrived by flying to the smaller airports in those markets. CEO Gary Kelly has described the strategy as adding “breadth” to the market because the number of passengers at every single airport is down considerably.

“Once again, there’s lower risk because of the current customer base there as well as the extra assets we have idled that we can redeploy,” Watterson said.

It’s a bold move for thrifty Southwest, a company that likes to zig while its major competitors zag. Chicago O’Hare is a major hub for both Chicago-based United Airlines and Fort Worth-based American Airlines. Houston Intercontinental is also a major hub for United.

Southwest is choosing to go head-to-head against its major legacy competitors in those markets.

“We have customers who fly us out of Midway but perhaps their job is downtown and Midway is more convenient,” Watterson said. “Maybe they would like to leave from Midway and return at O’Hare. So the opportunity to have multiple airports in a geography works really well for us.”

Southwest actually flew to Houston Intercontinental as part of its original Texas route network. Southwest expanded to Houston Hobby in 1980 and flew to both airports until 2005, when it started flying exclusively to Houston Hobby in that market.

Don’t expect Southwest to make the same move in North Texas, though. Dallas Love Field is home to Southwest Airlines headquarters. It’s difficult for Southwest to fly out of both airports due to restrictions from the Wright Amendment created when DFW International Airport was built.

Watterson said Southwest has made other major changes during the pandemic. Southwest has cut thousands of flights but hasn’t dropped service to any market. The carrier also started about 70 new nonstop routes in November, Watterson said.

Among the new nonstop flights are weekend routes between Dallas Love Field and Cleveland, Salt Lake City and the previously announced Steamboat Springs, Colo., service.

Gary Kelly chats with a flight attendant during a trip to Denver International Airport in June.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly visits Denver International Airport to talk with employees and customers. // Stephen M. Keller, 2020

A man passes a flight status board at Love Field on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Dallas.  (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)
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