Southwest Airlines is Pittsburgh International Airport's busiest airline, carrying 26 percent of PIT’s total passengers. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Southwest Stays ‘Bullish’ on Pittsburgh Market

Southwest Airlines remains optimistic about future growth in Pittsburgh as the carrier recovers from the effects of a global pandemic that has decimated the aviation industry.

In fact, 2020 was going to be ‘the year’ for Southwest to expand service at Pittsburgh International Airport. As a guest on the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s virtual ‘Business as Usual’ series last week, Vice President of Southwest Business Dave Harvey said the carrier had not changed its plans to grow in Pittsburgh.

“We are very bullish on Pittsburgh,” Harvey said. “Pittsburgh has a lot of things…think about tech, when you think about medical [and] the cost of living…when we’re thinking about where to put that next aircraft, you’re high on that list.”

Harvey added that there’s still potential for growth in Pittsburgh.

“I think we just need to weather this current COVID storm,” he said. “We’ve built up a great customer base there.”

Globally, passenger traffic in 2020 is estimated to be down nearly 70 percent, year-over-year, according to a report released by travel industry data and analytics company Cirium. In the U.S., Transportation Security Administration data shows the number of passengers screened at checkpoints daily was down about 61 percent compared to 2019.

“It’s been absolutely breathtaking,” said Harvey. “I experienced 9/11 and the Great Recession, and this is both of those rolled together times 100.”

As a result, airlines like Southwest have had to right-size their capacity and networks, Harvey explained, noting that demand has been very “choppy.”

Southwest scheduled 30 percent fewer flights network-wide in 2020, year-over-year. At Pittsburgh International, the Dallas-based carrier is currently operating about 10 departures per day, with some routes currently suspended, including flights from PIT to Atlanta, Dallas-Love, St. Louis and Houston. These routes are expected to restart in the coming months.

Despite the dramatic decrease in traveler demand, Southwest surpassed American Airlines and Delta to become the world’s largest airline based on capacity during the pandemic. And in Pittsburgh, Southwest is the airport’s top carrier, carrying 26 percent of PIT’s total passengers.

“[PIT] was going to surpass 10 million annual customers (in 2020),” Harvey said. “That’s a big stepping stone and we’d be proud to be driving a lot of that traffic.”

Similar to other carriers like United and JetBlue, Southwest has adjusted to the change in travel demand by testing new markets, with a focus on popular leisure destinations. One of those new routes includes new seasonal service between PIT and Sarasota, Florida.

With COVID-19 vaccination underway in the U.S., Harvey expects that recovery for the industry is coming.

“We’re getting much closer to herd immunity, people will be visiting grandma and grandpa, or taking business trips again,” he said.

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