Whoa: Southwest Launching Flights To IAH & ORD

Filed Under: Southwest

Suffice to say that it’s not business as usual at the major US airlines lately when it comes to network planning. Southwest Airlines is back today with yet another major announcement that will surprise many (including me!).

Southwest expanding service in Chicago & Houston

Southwest Airlines has announced plans to expand its footprint in Chicago and Houston. Starting in the first half of 2021, Southwest will launch flights to:

  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD)
  • Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)

It goes without saying that those are major international airports — among the biggest in the country — but currently Southwest Airlines doesn’t fly to either. Instead Southwest flies to the alternative airports in the cities, where the airline has mega-hubs:

  • Chicago Midway Airport (MDW) is one of the busiest airports in Southwest’s network; the airline has been flying to Chicago since 1985
  • Houston Hobby Airport (HOU) is another one of the busiest airports in Southwest’s network; between 1980 and 2005 the airline flew to both HOU and IAH, though at that point the airline switched all operations to HOU

Southwest Airlines hasn’t yet revealed just how much of a presence we should expect at these airports.

As Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly describes this move:

“Southwest owes decades of success to our Employees and Customers who have supported our business in Chicago and Houston. Today’s announcement furthers our commitment to both cities as we add service to share Southwest’s value and Hospitality with more leisure and business travelers.”

This is fascinating…

Recently Southwest Airlines announced that it would launch flights to Miami International Airport (MIA), complementing its hub at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL).

As a Miami resident I totally get and appreciate this, because personally I don’t view FLL as a substitute for MIA. I live so close to MIA and appreciate the convenience, so will do everything I can to avoid FLL. I’d absolutely fly Southwest out of South Florida now, while I wouldn’t have in the past.

So I guess I have the same question for those in Chicago and Houston:

  • Are IAH and ORD significantly more convenient for large and lucrative customer bases?
  • Or is there more to this? Is Southwest losing out on significant business because people are only searching to ORD and IAH rather than doing wider searches?

Presumably in all of these cases the airline will just be serving point-to-point passengers, with those connecting still being funneled through hubs. Unlike other airlines, Southwest doesn’t rely on partnerships or codeshare agreements to fill planes.

Bottom line

Southwest Airlines will be launching service to Chicago O’Hare and Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport, which is quite a strategy change for the airline.

Southwest Airlines largely uses a hub-and-spoke system, and also has some of the most efficient connection opportunities. Operating point-to-point routes out of co-terminal airports sure is something I wouldn’t have expected from Southwest a year ago.

What do you make of Southwest expanding service in Chicago and Houston?

  1. The last paragraph notes that Southwest uses a hub and spoke system. Traditionally, Southwest did NOT use a hub and spoke system. In recent years, it has somewhat of a hub and spoke system in some airports, like Midway, but not strict banks of flights as Northwest did in Memphis and Delta in SLC.

    With more and more traffic, it makes sense to service more than one airport in one metropolitan area. FLL is more convenient to some, MIA more convenient to others.

    Southwest used to brag that it never leaves airports. SFO was abandoned but they came back as is IAH. One of the few airports it left was Beaumont, TX, EWR and the closed airports of Denver Stapleton and Austin Mueller.

    I consider Midway slightly less safe due to the short runways. That and LGA and DCA.

  2. Damn, Southwest has no chill this year lol. All they need is to enter DFW and JFK to completely their footprint in major markets.

    Much like their Miami plans, I also think most of their routes out of O’Hare and IAH will be to their hubs/focus cities, and/or any lucrative seasonal/year-round leisure routes that locals would like.

  3. IAH is not quite as obvious to me, but opening ORD is a no brainer. Ohare is so much better located to the bulk of the wealthier suburbs west and northwest of the city. They will most certainly access new customers with this move.

  4. Convenience is definitely a factor here, and the two Chicago airports serve two different groups to a certain extent. A large number of people in suburbs north of Chicago wouldn’t be willing to fly out of Midway (located Southwest of the city) because it is quite far, and ORD (located northwest of Chicago) is much more convenient. Midway also serves people who live in Northwest Indiana, for whom ORD is far. The Chicago metro area is pretty expansive.

  5. This is actually a pretty huge deal for Houston. Hobby is not in the greatest of neighborhoods. This will open up a ton of the Houston market for Southwest. There is a very large population in the West, Northwest, North, and Northeast sides of Houston that fly only out of IAH because of how far Hobby is from them. Being a former resident of Illinois I think this will be pretty huge for them at ORD as well. Midway is like Hobby and not I’m the greatest neighborhood. A lot of people don’t use Midway because if it’s location alone. I think these moves by Southwest will greatly expand their customer base and be home run moves for them.

  6. @Doug this in my opinion is a no brained in Houston as well. There’s a lot of people here that won’t fly Southwest because they don’t want to fly in and out of Hobby for various reasons. Will make it so much more convenient for people on the north side of Houston.

  7. As other’s have said, ORD is the primary airport for the northern suburbs of Chicago. I don’t know anyone that lives outside the city to the north that would consider Southwest because of the distance. If I had to guess, in current times given the wealth in those suburbs they represent a lucrative leisure market while we wait for business travel to pick back up.

    So in normal times, Southwest is capturing a decent leisure demand from folks in the city, and are competitive for their fair share of business travel downtown as a slightly more convenient location vs. ORD which is terrible to get to in traffic. However, in a year when business travel evaporates, you have Southwest competing for leisure traffic from downtown and losing some to UA/AA, but also losing out on the entire suburban leisure market which may be larger right now.

  8. but why did southwest leave Newark??? There is plenty of demand at Newark which Jetblue is gladly taking over

  9. @Juan
    WN cannot fly to DFW under a legal agreement they have until 2025. We might see them fly a few routes once the agreement lapses but I doubt they will grow it past what they have at DAL unless DFW dramatically increases their Terminal space.

  10. “ Southwest Airlines largely uses a hub-and-spoke system”

    Whaaaa? LOL, no. They don’t. They have airports where they have larger market share that act as pseudo-hubs, but it’s not unusual for them to do flights that literally go SEA-LAS-PHX-SLC (all as one flight number and through flight, you don’t even leave the plane if you’re on a later stop) or SAT-DAL-FLL-BWI. Of all the airlines they are the least likely to run flights AAA-BBB-AAA, with AAA as the hub. They don’t run banked operations the way other airlines do either.

  11. Another Houstonian here. I live on the far north side of Houston (the Woodlands) so getting to Hobby is ~1 hr each way, and that’s not counting traffic. I love SW and would fly them a ton more if the airport were more convenient, so this is huge for me (depending on what flights actually go out of IAH).

  12. I live on the northside of Chicago (in fact, we are right under the arrival path along Lake Shore Drive). While I am a city resident, getting to ORD is so much easier for me. A cab ride out to the Blue Line stop at Montrose and I can be at ORD in under 30-35 minutes. Getting to MDW requires me to get into the Loop and and taking the Orange line – a process that can take me upwards of 50-60 minutes – even if everything is timed well. With COVID cutting down on traffic, I could probably get to ORD via the Kennedy in 30 minutes and just skip taking the CTA. This “might” influence me to consider WN – but as an AA EXP, it would have to be significant to make me jump.

  13. Yes, Hobby is simply not a realistic option for Houston residents living in the northern suburbs. You would face a ridiculous drive through downtown in Houston traffic. Easily over an hour. My parents live in The Woodlands and would love to be able to fly Southwest, but cannot. Hobby is also a really crappy, small airport, comparatively, and is in a bad part of town. This changes everything.

  14. MDW is the more convenient airport to downtown Chicago and the south/southwest suburbs. ORD is more convenient to the N/NW sides of the city, north/northwest/west suburbs. Lastly, ORD has far more potential frequent fliers within this catchment basin than MDW has.

    Go anywhere north/northwest of ORD and MDW becomes a VERY unattractive alternative because of the horrid traffic issues on the Stevenson Expy (I-55). Because of the alignment of Chicago expressways, MDW ends up being a lot tougher to get to from the north than you’d think – and the traffic can be very unpredictable. I once missed a flight for which I’d left home 2 1/2 hours before flight time. The trip was usually 45 minutes (less traffic), but I hit an early (6 am) wreck and each minute of delay cost me three more minutes due to extra congestion.

    I love WN, but rarely fly them anymore because I’ve since moved even farther north and it’s not worth that hell of a drive. I’d imagine a similar situation in the Houston area, btw. WN is missing out of a lot of potential customers by not serving significant parts of these large metros. I hope this works out!

  15. ORD is much more convenient than MDW for those of us in Wisconsin (MKE doenst have nearly as many SouthWest flights as MDW). Getting to MDW from Wisconsin is a nightmare.

  16. @John, with respect to Hobby and The Woodlands, truly you can’t get there from here without passing by IAH 🙂

    I’m not a HOU apologist but Hobby has, in the last couple of years, undergone considerable renovations and is a much improved experience for those who are convenient to it. This includes a new gate area for Southwest as well as international destinations. You can park in a secure surface lot and walk to check-in in ten minutes.

    It is not Changi, but what is in the U.S.?

  17. Not sure about others, but we live in the Western suburbs of Chicago and are almost equally distant from both airports, a little over 20 miles. So for us, it’s a perfect world with two major airports so close by.

  18. I’m a transportation researcher, and this move is a no brainer. There is no reason for an airline as successful and leisure-focused as WN not to offer service at primary hubs. This is the same model that other airlines have been using successfully since deregulation. It is wise for an airline to have a presence at each of a city’s major hubs in order to optimize their market penetration.

    In Chicago, due to histotic development factors the areas to the North and West of the city stretch further and are more developed than areas South of the city. With that being said, it would be a crying shame if Southwest pulled out of MDW or reduced service there. MDW is essential for people living in the South Suburbs and NW Indiana, which probably account for 3-4 million people. Just as residents living in the NW suburbs complain about the long drive to MDW, it is equally long for people in the South Suburbs to get to ORD. Chicago is too large of a city not to have more than one airport. If anything it could use a 3rd airport.

  19. Whenever there is a choice like with DAL or DFW, HOU or IAH or MDW or ORD I would usually go with the Southwest airport as they usually have their stuff a lot better together than other airports. DAL and DFW in particular are a world of difference, from parking, getting through security and from there to the gate.

  20. Seems like this should add many positioning options for international flights out of Chicago and Houston that we didn’t have before.

  21. SWA is the largest domestic carrier in the United States. SWA simply is adapting quickly to the business environment. “Just plane smart.”

  22. MDW is in such a sketchy neighborhood too, not many reliable 3p parking options nor cheap hotels for park n flies. So yes, coming from Wisconsin I would fly out of ORD 10/10 times before MDW

  23. I live 10min from ORD and am thrilled! Not likely to fly SWA as I have Platinum status with AA but am hopeful SWA/Spirit will help drive down AA prices for leisure destinations such as Vegas and Florida

  24. Living in Southeast Houston (near NASA), HOU was always the best. I hated driving all the way to IAH, so I can imagine the people up north feel the same way about driving to HOU. I agree that Hobby is a much nicer airport now. I just wish that someone would bring back the feeder service like used to be at Elington so I wouldn’t have to drive to IAH when I need to international!

  25. Lots of folks live on the north side of Houston, but IAH is far away from the city itself compared to HOU. It’s the difference between Narita and Haneda. With the opening of routes to IAH, ORD, and MIA, I wonder if SW is positioning themselves for a code sharing agreement with an international airline post-Covid.

  26. A lot of northernern houstonites commenting here. As a southie (Clear Lake), I’ll say that going to IAH is an absolute slog if there is any traffic at all, and even if there isnt. And their usually iss traffic, since you need to go all the way into the city, and then all the way out – its always rush our in one direction. If you need someone from home to come pick you up, that’s easily 2 hours out of their day.

    The other terrible thing about IAH is that that’s where UA is, with their ridiculously high prices for direct flights from Houston to anywhere. Even as a Houstonian, I cannot fathom giving them loyalty, given the driving times and the high prices. Instead, I’m an exec plat on AA. I make the quick drive to Hobby, connect in Dallas, and I’m on my way, usually at a muchhh lower price than what UA is asking for me to drive to their remote, rural airport.

    And also, not sure what Hobby’s neighbhorhood has to do with anything. In the zillion times I’ve driven there, I’d never felt uncomfortable or at risk, no matter the hour.

  27. Hooray !
    Finally ORD availability, after early SWA positive MDW experiences. Due to Corporate demands, had to utilize AA ORD connections. As a current AA MM, I look forward to re establishing my
    SWA relationship @ ORD.

  28. @Charlie @JL100 I used to live in Brickell and could get up to FLL in 30 min max and this was before coronavirus. Yes, the drivers on I-95 are some of the worst I have ever seen but you learn how to drive defensively and go around the people driving 45mph in the left lane or the people who somehow brake and merge onto the expressway simultaneously lol.

    When I first moved down here I found it so funny how people think Miami and Fort Lauderdale are so far away from each other. They act like you need to make it a weekend trip. I guess I have a different perspective because I grew up in Metro Detroit where there is no public transport and it is totally normal to drive 45-50 minutes to go shopping, grab dinner/drinks, go hang out at a friend’s house, etc.

  29. @GRUSA, from your response I’m guessing you would consider DCA, IAD, and BWI to be close to one another? How about LGA, JFK, and EWR?

    By the way, I never leave my car at airports anymore, so the distance from home to the airport has to be measured in cab fares as well as minutes. I’m guessing that the cab fare from Coral Gables to FLL is significant.

  30. Well, here is my two cents. I am glad they will fly out of ORD. We use SW for a lot of positioning flights to Europe.

    Second thought – wish they would finally partner with a carrier that flies to Europe.

  31. Maybe it’s just me but I loved Hobby airport. So much more relaxing than IAH. And our home was in north Houston.

  32. WN is largely a hub & spoke airline ??
    I’m sitting here wondering what airport is their primarly hub 😉
    I’ve always considered them a “criss-cross” (the country) airline. That, combined with high frequency in many of their markets means they offer connection opportunities all over the country.

    A few years back, Mom & I were flying ABQ-TPA (nonstop) during Christmas.
    About boarding time, they announced a 1 hour delay. The SEA-ABQ flight was running late and had about 40 connections to our flight, so we were holding for them.
    On approach to TPA, it was announced that the FLL (which was where plane this plane continued), RDU and JAX flights would be held for connections from our flight.
    Walking by the TPA-RDU gate, they announced about 3 flights out of RDU that were going to be held.
    I never considered ABQ, TPA or RDU to be WN focus cites, much less a hub. Yet they had enough criss-crossing connections, that “hub like” decisions needed to be made to protect as connections as possible.

  33. More and more companies have moved to the northern suburbs in Houston, so the market is huge. And I have personally chosen other airlines, especially for short duration trips, since I live 20 minutes north of IAH vs an hour north of HOU. Willing to pay a premium to fly from IAH if I get home quicker!

  34. Both my wife and I are from the NW side of the Chicago metro area where our families still are. I personally would avoid ORD and prefer to fly into the smaller and easier to use MDW which I do once a year or so to visit. Lines are shorter, rental car facility is convenient. I avoid the Stevenson and Kennedy (highways) especially during commute hours and take north-south surface roads like Cicero and Harlem from MDW. They are quicker most of the time or at least the traffic is moving and less frustrating than the highways.

  35. Hobby and Midway are getting saturated pre-COVID, so smart strategy to serve customers in 2 cities with passionate customers. Go SWA!!!

  36. As someone who travels a lot on Southwest and travels through Houston as well, I am perplexed by Southwest’s move. Southwest traditionally has had a hold over Hobby while United has a hold over IAH. Spirit has started to compete with United at IAH to provide a low-cost fare but it would be interesting to see what Southwest brings and where it flies. As one of the comments above said, it is somewhat of a distance between the two airports and if you add traffic time – it can take up to 2 hours to get from one airport to the other. So this would rule out transfer of passengers – unless they run a bus like they do from Gatwick to Heathrow in London. – so then they would be relying on point-to-point business or to-from Houston for these flights?

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