Questions for Southwest Airlines focus on eliminated, new routes

Dave Harvey of Southwest Airlines speaks to members of the Aero Club at Botanica on Thursday. (Feb. 24, 2016)
Dave Harvey of Southwest Airlines speaks to members of the Aero Club at Botanica on Thursday. (Feb. 24, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

A joint Wichita Aero Club and Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday featuring Southwest Airlines executives yielded a lot of questions about the carrier’s decision to end Wichita service to Dallas and Chicago, but add Phoenix and St. Louis in their place.

Five executives from Southwest’s network planning and corporate sales made up the airline’s panel of experts at the luncheon at Botanica, which was attended by about 200 Chamber and Aero Club members.

David Harvey, Southwest’s senior director of network planning and performance, spoke broadly about the airline, its history and financial performance over the years, including profit of $2.4 billion in 2015.

Harvey said conversations about adding Southwest service to Wichita go back decades.

“It was a long courtship,” he said. “There was dialogue going back to the early ’70s and ’80s.”

It was Southwest’s acquisition of AirTran, however, that led the airline to launch service in Wichita in June 2013 with two daily flights to Dallas Love Field and Chicago Midway Airport, and once-daily service to Las Vegas.

“The Vegas flight does great,” Harvey said. “We’re very, very pleased with the strong demand.”

Harvey and other Southwest panelists said in opening remarks, and in a question-and-answer period that followed, that a combination of factors led the airline to decide last fall to end its Dallas and Chicago service and replace those routes with direct flights to St. Louis and Phoenix, which begin April 12.

The Dallas and Chicago routes were no longer profitable, they said.

Probably the biggest factor, Southwest officials said, was the fact that on the Chicago and Dallas routes from Wichita, Southwest faced stiff competition with United, American and Delta. Those airlines also offered daily flights on those routes — in some cases more times per day than Southwest — creating an oversupply of seats, Harvey said.

“There’s a lot of supply in the marketplace just not enough local demand to satisfy those seats,” Harvey said.

For a while, however, Southwest could make the Wichita to Chicago and Dallas routes work. That’s because the federal Wright Amendment limited Southwest’s nonstop flights from Dallas Love Field to a handful of states mostly regional to Texas, including Kansas.

So until the Wright Amendment was repealed in the fall of 2014, Southwest flights from Dallas to Chicago, and vice versa, had to stop in Wichita to satisfy the law.

Once the repeal took effect and Southwest could offer direct, nonstop flights between Dallas and Chicago, Wichita service to both cities was no longer economically feasible.

“So it made us take a step back and look at our business patterns,” Harvey said.

Plus, competitors on those routes had been serving Wichita longer than Southwest and had established a cadre of Wichita fliers who were using their frequent flier programs.

When a Wichita passenger has built up thousands of miles through a competing airline’s frequent flier program, “it’s hard to walk away from that” and choose to fly on Southwest, Harvey said.

Harvey and Kyle Snyder, Southwest business consultant for network planning, said they think that based on the airline’s research, the new Phoenix and St. Louis routes will work for the airline and Wichita passengers because they are among the top leisure and business travel destinations not currently served by Southwest competitors at Wichita Eisenhower National Airport.

“Two that rose to the top were Phoenix and St. Louis,” Snyder said.

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark