Southwest Airlines, which grew at double-digit rates for years, will downshift into slow reverse this January.
The USA's leading discounter and most profitable airline said Tuesday that it will remove 196 daily flights from its schedule on Jan. 11.
It also will add six new flights, bringing the net decrease in service to 190 flights out of its current total of just over 3,400 daily departures. That is almost a 6% cut in departures.
Southwest luv officials have hinted at the possibility of a modest schedule cutback for months but held off in following other airlines that are making deeper cuts starting after Labor Day.
Southwest's decision to make service cuts this winter underscores the industry's economic dilemma in responding to soaring jet fuel prices.
Airlines need to raise fares to cover their higher fuel costs. But doing so drives more travelers out of the market. That in turn forces airlines to reduce the amount of service they offer. Paradoxically, that's a good thing for carriers — though not for consumers — because it reduces their fuel consumption, and the tighter supply of seats helps push prices up.
Southwest, which boards more domestic passengers each year than any other U.S. airline, faces particular difficulty increasing fares. Because it is a discount carrier popular with leisure travelers and the most price-sensitive business travelers, higher prices threaten to undermine its appeal to its core customers more than is the case at conventional carriers.
The biggest flight reductions will come at five of Southwest's most heavily served airports: Chicago Midway, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Baltimore/Washington and Nashville.
In total, 48 of the 64 U.S. airports served by Southwest will see flight cuts, but at 16 only one flight a day will be lost. At an additional 13, only two or three daily flights will be cut.
Three non-stop routes — Nashville-Oakland, Nashville-Seattle and Phoenix-Birmingham, Ala. — will disappear from the schedule. Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin says some of the scrubbed flights could return later if demand warrants.
Southwest has not backed off its plans to grow slightly in 2009. It plans to take delivery of 14 new Boeing 737s in 2009 but now intends to use them to replace older jets rather than for expansion.