There are a lot of things that make Southwest Airlines unique among US airlines, and I’d consider most of those to be competitive advantages. There is one strange quirk that makes Southwest unique, though — the airline doesn’t operate redeye flights. I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at why, and if that could change.
In this post:
Southwest doesn’t operate redeye flights
Domestic redeye flights (where you fly overnight) can be polarizing — people love them for the efficiency of not “wasting” a day, but hate them for having to miss a night of sleep, and how tough they can be on your body.
Major US airlines operate domestic redeye flights for a variety of reasons:
- There’s the old saying that planes only make money when they’re in the air, so parking a plane on the ground overnight isn’t great for aircraft utilization
- Many customers prefer redeyes to save time, so an airline not operating redeyes could lose some business to the competition
- For many markets, redeyes allow airlines to offer practical connecting itineraries; for example, if you’re flying from Hawaii to the East Coast of the mainland and are connecting on the West Coast, one of your two flights will almost always have to be a redeye
There’s one exception when it comes to redeyes. In its 50+ year history, Southwest Airlines has never scheduled a redeye flight. What’s the logic — does the airline just not think these flights would make money, or…?
Why doesn’t Southwest operate redeyes?
Up until 2017, there was a technical limitation that prevented Southwest Airlines from scheduling redeyes. The airline used to have an antiquated reservations system:
- This system didn’t allow Southwest to schedule connecting itineraries involving redeyes
- This system didn’t allow the airline to even fluctuate its schedule on different days of the week
- All Southwest flights had be scheduled to land by 11PM PT (2AM ET), so that the system could be switched over to the following day
In 2017, Southwest finally transitioned to Amadeus, which is much more capable, and allows the airline to schedule redeyes, among other things.
So over five years after making the switch, why has Southwest still not introduced redeyes? In early 2020, while the Boeing 737 MAX was grounded, and before the pandemic shut down travel, Southwest’s VP of Network Planning was asked about Southwest’s lack of redeyes. Below is an excerpt.
Southwest doesn’t fly red eyes. How much easier would your life be if it did?
I don’t know if easier is the right word, but it’s different. I’d like to be able to fly red eyes just because it would give you some more opportunities to serve the customer need. I believe there’s a customer need for people that are going from west to east that want to fly after the business day.
If it never comes to pass for Southwest, it’s something we’ve lived with for 48 years. It’s not like, “Oh my gosh, we have to fly red eyes.” At some point, it would be a nice extension from what we’re doing now. But it’s not a make or break thing.
When it’s right and the operation is feeling comfortable that they can do it and they can maintain it for our employees, then we’ll go ahead and turn that on.
For what it’s worth, while Southwest flight attendants seem to be able to operate redeyes without issue according to their contract, I’ve heard rumors that the contract for pilots would make redeyes more costly to operate. I haven’t been able to see the contract myself to figure out if that’s actually the case, but if anyone has any insights, I’d love to hear them.
Southwest is such a quirky airline
Southwest is a funny airline, and that’s also why I’m a bit conflicted on this.
When I started writing this post, I thought to myself “is no one at Southwest thinking, or why wouldn’t the airline add redeyes?” Southwest has the planes sitting around, and presumably there are at least some markets where these flights could be operated profitably, and where repositioning planes overnight would allow the airline to otherwise run more smoothly.
So it’s only natural that my thought is that Southwest just seems to be stuck in its ways, and refuses to change. That brings me to my other thought on this, which is that part of what sets Southwest apart from the competition is that the airline is set in its ways.
Some other US airlines seem to think that the path to profitability includes a complete reinvention every few years, with seemingly little success. “Hey, let’s add TVs to planes and be premium” quickly turns into “nope, never mind, let’s rip those out.” Meanwhile little has changed about Southwest, from friendly service, to efficient aircraft turns, to two free checked bags, to no assigned seats.
Southwest is the only airline that truly marches to the beat of its own drum, and doesn’t seem to care what the competition does. And it has worked really well for the airline over the years.
So while I might not get Southwest’s logic here, I do think the folks at Southwest know exactly what they’re doing, and that the decision to not operate redeyes is intentional… for now.
Southwest Airlines is the only major US airline to not operate redeye flights. Up until 2017, this was due to a limitation with the carrier’s reservations system, which (amazingly) didn’t allow redeyes to be scheduled. However, it has been over five years since that change was made, and the airline still doesn’t operate redeyes.
This seems to be something that’s on Southwest’s radar, though it obviously hasn’t been enough of a priority to actually happen. I’m curious to see if this changes eventually, or if the airline will just stick with its current strategy.
Anyone want to take a stab at explaining Southwest’s lack of redeyes?