Southwest Airlines today announced service to five new destinations out of Long Beach Airport, with a total of seven nonstop, daily flights to Chicago Midway, Dallas Love Field, Houston Hobby, Reno and St. Louis.

The airline will begin serving the new routes beginning in March and April.

“In Long Beach, we didn’t have the ability to grow before. But if we can get more spots, we will continue to grow our presence,” Adam Decaire, vice president of network planning, said. “LA may look close [to Long Beach] on a map but it is not close when you drive it and traffic can play quite the inhibitor to people’s travel choices.”

The additional trips will bring the airline’s daily flight total to 34—its current limit at the municipal airport—flying to 13 destinations across the country. The announcement comes just weeks after the airline unveiled a daily flight to Honolulu, also set to begin in March.

Beginning service at Long Beach in 2016, Southwest initially focused on intrastate travel from Long Beach to the Bay Area and Sacramento, Decaire said. Slowly, as it picked up more flight slots, the carrier added routes outside the state, including Austin, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

“But we want to get Long Beach passengers to the rest of … our network,” Decaire said.

On March 11, one flight will serve each of the five new destinations. With other routes still reduced, the additions will bring the airline’s daily slot utilization to 25. On April 12, service to Chicago and Houston routes will increase to two daily flights each and the airline’s other routes are expected to increase to their maximum levels.

“All that is subject to change,” Decaire said, noting the ongoing pandemic that has caused a historic upheaval in the industry. “It’s never been more volatile.”

Fares for the new flights start as low as $39 to $89 one way, depending on the destination.

When operating all flights, Southwest’s daily schedule will include one flight to Austin, one to Dallas, three to Denver, one to Honolulu, two to Houston, six to Las Vegas, two to Chicago, five to Oakland, four to Phoenix, one to Reno, three to San Jose, four to Sacramento and one to St. Louis.

Last year, when Southwest was only flying within the state from Long Beach, the airline could offer Long Beach travelers connections to 27 locations. With its newest additions, travelers are connected to 82 domestic destinations via connecting flights.

A Southwest flight comes in for a landing at Long Beach Airport. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

“The people of Long Beach can get to a lot more destinations than they ever could before on any other carrier,” Decaire said.

Long Beach Airport is regulated by a noise control ordinance that limits daily flights to 53. If additional slots are eventually awarded to Southwest—either through an increase of the airport’s daily limit or if other carriers give up slots—Decaire said the airline would be open to expanding to East Coast destinations based on demand.

“It’s always about customer choice. If people chose to use Long Beach and fly Southwest, they vote with their wallet,” Decaire said, adding that if high volumes of Long Beach passengers are frequently connecting to destinations not offered nonstop—such as Baltimore—those would be at the top of the list for consideration.

One destination not in play for Southwest direct from Long Beach is New York, Decaire said. The airline only serves LaGuardia Airport, which has a perimeter rule that does not allow the facility to accept flights from destinations more than 1,500 miles away.

Southwest has operations at nearby John Wayne Airport but the longer flights to the Midwest and Hawaii were easier to accomplish at Long Beach, Decaire said. The Orange County airport’s longest runway is 5,701 feet long, while Long Beach’s longest runway is 10,000 feet, allowing for larger planes at higher passenger loads.

Due to the pandemic, Southwest is currently only utilizing 16 of its daily flight slots. Overall, only 20 flights are taking off from Long Beach each day. Passenger traffic through the airport is still down around 80% from last year, with a full recovery not expected for years.

“We encourage our passengers to follow current travel advisories, but that doesn’t stop us from looking forward to the day when travel returns around the country,” said Airport Director Cynthia Guidry in a statement. “When the time is right, Long Beach Airport is here to welcome our travelers with even more destinations and connections than before.”

Replacing JetBlue

For nearly two decades, JetBlue Airways was Long Beach’s largest air carrier. But in April, the torch was passed as Southwest picked up more flight slots. JetBlue ceased Long Beach operations in October, leaving Southwest as the leader in air travel for the city. For months, social media has been flooded with residents’ condemnation of Long Beach officials for “driving JetBlue out” of the city and replacing the company with a “lesser” airline. But the critics have not phased Southwest leadership.

A handful of passengers wait to board a Southwest flight out of Long Beach Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

“People have their carriers of preference and it is what it is. It’s Coke versus Pepsi,” Decaire said. “But when people talk [negatively about Southwest], I have a hard time seeing what they think we are not offering people on our planes. I think we have a great service.”

Last year, Southwest had the lowest rate of customer complaints of any major U.S. airline at 0.33 per 100,000 enplanements, nearly three times less than JetBlue. Decaire noted the airline’s two free checked bag policy, no change fees, the company’s policy to give flight credits to passengers who cancel travel plans and its rewards program as services that make the carrier stand out among competitors.

During its reign at Long Beach Airport, JetBlue racked up millions of dollars in fines for operating flights past the noise ordinance curfew, often paying well over $100,000 per month. Last year, 1.2% of JetBlue flights violated the noise ordinance, whereas only 0.02% of Southwest flights were in violation.

“From day one, we respected [the ordinance]. We understand it. We want to be part of the community,” Decaire said. “We want to earn their business, we want to earn their trust and we want to stay focused on the things that are important to them. If we have to, we will cancel a flight versus breaking curfew.”

“We couldn’t be more pleased at the opportunity to have the chance to win more customers in the Long Beach area,” Decaire added. “It’s kind of a shining light in an otherwise dark time.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.