Southwest Airlines is opening new routes to Chicago and it’s not to the airport that many may automatically think. On Monday, the Dallas-based carrier announced that it would begin service to Chicago O’Hare airport, long a stronghold of American and United Airlines, in the first half of 2021. The new service will bring fresh new competition to the city’s biggest airport.
Chicago’s two largest metropolitan airports have always split up traffic between O’Hare on the west side and Midway to the southwest — and traditionally, the airport to the south has been a fortress held by Southwest Airlines. Today, Midway serves as one of the carrier’s biggest hubs; during non-COVID times, Simple Flying reports that Southwest operated as many as 260 flights out of the airport each day.
American and United, by contrast, have largely operated out of O’Hare, where each carrier has its own respective hub.
Now, those strict alignments are starting to blur. Though Southwest hasn’t shared where it will ultimately fly from O’Hare, it’s likely that the carrier will operate service to one of its major hubs which could include Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Houston Hobby, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Orlando, or Phoenix.
Passengers on the north side of Chicago, in turn, will now be able to get faster access to Southwest-operated destinations, though likely not with the same volume of service that Midway offers.
As part of the announcement on Monday, Southwest also announced that it would start routes to Houston George Bush Intercontinental, long a stronghold for United Airlines. In the past, Southwest operated flights out of George Bush International between 1980 and 2005 — but ultimately pulled out in favor of its current hub in Houston Hobby.
Neither specific routes nor timings were shared for either new service.
What is clear, however, is that Southwest is venturing into new territory and starting to compete more directly against some of the traditional legacy air carriers. In part, this may be because of the market that Southwest traditionally has at its behest. Until recently, Southwest focused heavily on leisure travelers and destinations with its fleet of single-cabin, no-frills 737s. American, Delta and United, by contrast, diversified and expanded to high-touch business travelers.
Now, with a pandemic still at large and an airline industry in a prolonged recovery, the leisure market is recovering traffic at a faster pace than the business sector. And with a fleet and a route network geared for soaking up leisure travel dollars, Southwest may simply feel like it’s got more leeway to experiment with new routes.