Overnight seismic network changes became much rarer heading into 2021, but they did not go entirely obsolete. In response to improving demand, Southwest Airlines boosted its flight schedules by 1,000 daily departures almost overnight. Buoyed by March, Southwest is now looking towards the summer where, in June, it will fly nearly all of its summer 2019 available seat miles (ASMs).
Southwest boosts March schedules
Speaking on the airline’s first-quarter earnings call, CEO Gary Kelly stated the following on increasing March capacity:
“Beginning with a mid-March inflection point, we finally began to see bookings improve from the nine-month, down 65% flat-line that we had been experiencing. So, vaccinations, case counts, and spring break all converged in the right way, and, sensing this, we boosted our capacity by 50% overnight, or 1,000 daily departures, in the middle of March.”
The data also backs up Mr. Kelly’s claim. RadarBox.com, which has compiled daily flight numbers, shows a strong increase in daily flight numbers starting at around March 12th:
From operating around roughly 1,900 flights per day, Southwest went to operating nearly 3,000 flights per day through the end of March. Spring break is a peak travel time during the first quarter, and there was clearly plenty of appetite for travel.
What about specific markets?
Leisure markets are coming back strong in Southwest’s network. President of Southwest, Tom Nealon, highlighted the following markets:
“A little more specifically to our network, we are seeing strength in our Texas markets: Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. We’re also seeing strength in, really all of Florida, but in particular on the Gulf Coast of Florida, which includes Panama City, Pensacola, Ft. Myers, and Tampa. The desert mountain region is performing really nicely, which includes Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Boise. Denver is also performing very well.”
In terms of markets that have seen a slower pace of recovery, Mr. Nealon highlighted the following:
“Demand continues to lag in areas such as the Northeast. Chicago’s lagging a bit; California is lagging a bit, although it’s really improving since the restrictions are being lifted. So, we are seeing improvements across the system, which is encouraging. And honestly, whether cities have been lagging or outperforming, what we are seeing is that all markets have improved fairly significantly recently compared to where they were in January and February.”
Lastly, Mr. Nealon spoke about Hawaii:
“We are comfortable adding back flights to capture additional demand, including Hawaii. And it’s great to see demand from California to Hawaii as well as between the islands ramp back up. And we’re finally at a point where we can get to our Hawaii flight schedules up to where we hoped we would be a year ago before the pandemic.”
These results are consistent with the pace of demand recovery. Chicago, California, and the Northeast have had more travel restrictions and business closures than Texas, Florida, or Arizona.
Looking to the summer
Southwest is preparing to flex its capacity up this summer, with the airline planning to fly 96% of its June 2019 ASMs this summer. ASMs are a good indicator of capacity, so Southwest is coming back to near 100%-levels of 2019 capacity, but with a different route network as the carrier has added some new cities and will add some more through June.
Summer bookings, according to Southwest, are also trending upwards as the booking curves lengthen. Depending on how the revenue and demand environment looks in May and June, Southwest can adjust its plans in either direction.
Southwest has proven in March that it can successfully ramp up capacity quickly and with little friction in terms of staffing and managing aircraft. This will be key heading into the summer when the carrier expects to see a far better revenue and demand environment.
What do you think about Southwest’s March capacity increase? Let us know in the comments!