Southwest Expanded Like Wildfire During 2021

The airline expanded to 18 new markets in 2021, ranging from new but unsurprising destinations like Mexican resort towns, to unexpected markets like Syracuse, New York (SYR), and Bellingham, Washington (BLI).

The airline’s growth was fueled partly by the return of capacity as the Boeing 737 MAX was cleared to return to passenger service, along with reduced demand for travel overall allowing the airline to reduce frequencies on some routes and redirect that capacity to new markets where Southwest is strategically bolstering its presence in existing markets – like Austin, Texas (AUS).

Travel demand surged back faster than expected, and Southwest — already short-staffed due to pandemic-driven early retirements, buyouts and leaves of absence — was left stretched too thin. It added as much capacity as possible for the staffing it had to maintain its network, but eventually reached a tipping point in October, when a series of relatively minor events — afternoon thunderstorms around Orlando, short-staffing at an air traffic control center in Jacksonville, a coastal military exercise — coalesced to cause the airline’s network to collapse.