DALLAS — Southwest Airlines has cut more than a third of all flights from its October schedule, scaling back plans for an aggressive recovery heading into the fall.
Southwest trimmed 36% of its schedule for October with an update published last week. according to an analysis from Dallas-based Airline Data Inc. That includes nearly 35,000 flights nationwide and nearly 35% of its traffic out of hometown Dallas, or about 60 flights a day.
“We are (generally, in 2020) making closer-in decisions on our published flight schedule and have just established a new ‘footing’ for both September and October, with an intention of adding in extra flights on popular routes/times of day where we need to lean-in on our Southwest Promise of keeping middle seats open through at least end of October,” said Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins in an email.
Southwest is among airlines planning for severe reductions in service as the fall approaches. After federal payroll support grants expire on Oct. 1, airlines will be allowed to lay off employees and cut service to destinations across the country. Without another round of federal stimulus, airlines will have to cut back heavily on expenses to try to reduce multibillion-dollar losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.
But airlines such as Southwest are in a desperate position. Southwest said it will burn through about $20 million of cash a day in the third quarter and its planes will probably only be 30% to 40% full during August.
Crosstown competitor American Airlines, based in Fort Worth, said last week that it plans to drop service to 15 cities in early October when payroll support grants end.
Southwest’s latest cuts include 15 non-stop routes from Dallas Love Field that were previously included on the schedule, including flights from Dallas to Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland and Seattle. After the cuts, Southwest is scheduled to fly non-stop to 39 cities in October from Love Field.
Southwest has said it will only fill planes to 65% capacity through at least the end of October, giving passengers enough space to leave at least the middle seat open on flights. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines said last week that it will leave middle seats open through January 2021, while American and Chicago-based United Airlines are not putting capacity restrictions on flights.
Southwest is keeping service to all 89 destinations in the U.S. and is bringing back international service as travel restrictions relax. However, many cities will have fewer routes and destinations than during the summer months, when Southwest had a busier schedule.
Jeff Pelletier, managing director at Airline Data Inc., said Southwest’s cutbacks will come during a critical month for the airline. October is typically a slow month for airline travel and the business travelers that usually come back in early fall will likely be sitting out this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of the economy.
“The cuts are spread out fairly evenly across the country,” he said. “Dallas has the most cuts of any airport, but there are fewer flights almost everywhere.”
Southwest said last week that it was reducing its overall capacity for August, September and October because of an “inconsistent” recovery for the airline sector, even though it had recently seen an uptick in bookings. However, it didn’t specify the depth of the cuts or what routes would be suspended.
Most of the Love Field routes removed from the October books were ones the company didn’t fly in September and had hoped to add back. Only five routes, those to Columbus, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Santa Ana, Calif., were on the schedule for September for flights from Dallas.
And all of those routes will be back on the books for November, when Southwest significantly increases its schedule, both in hopes of a stronger recovery by then as well as adjustments for the typically busy holiday season starting with Thanksgiving.
So far, Southwest has 179 flights a day scheduled at Love Field for the month of November, more than the 152 a day it flew last year, according to Airline Data Inc. December’s schedule is roughly the same number of flights as in December 2019.
Of course, this could all change if Congress passes an extension of the payroll support grants that airlines and unions have been pushing for. An extension would subsidize payrolls through March and give airlines more room to expand schedules.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said he has been speaking with lawmakers and supports a bill that extends the previous rules for airlines in exchange for more grants. Those rules include stipulations against layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, increases in CEO salary and cuts in service.