A Southwest flight lands at Long Beach Airport. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

With JetBlue Airways’ exit from Long Beach Airport, Southwest Airlines has stepped up as the airport’s premier carrier. The easily recognizable red, yellow and blue aircraft eventually will be flying 34 of the airport’s 53 allotted daily flight slots as it continues to expand service out of the domestic airfield.

Southwest is now flying 16 of its daily flight slots out of Long Beach due to the pandemic, but officials say they expect that will change.

“We do anticipate … Southwest to increase those slot usages in 2021,” said airport Director Cynthia Guidry. “It just depends on the impacts of COVID-19 and what happens over the next several months.”

Last month, Southwest made its first new destination announcement: a daily flight from Long Beach to Honolulu beginning March 11. The new flight is the airline’s only direct service to Hawaii in Greater Los Angeles and is direct competition with Hawaiian Airlines, which has been the sole provider of daily flights from Long Beach to Hawaii since June 2018.

The Long Beach flight was part of a broader schedule announcement of new and reinstated Southwest services across the country. While the airline has not yet announced additional Long Beach flights, its recent announcements indicate a focus on leisure destinations. Aside from the Honolulu flight, the carrier recently announced a flurry of new routes to Mexico; Savannah, Georgia; and Sarasota, Florida, departing from several cities across the country.

With Long Beach’s proximity to sunny shores, Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain and a host of other tourist destinations locally and throughout Southern California, it is likely Southwest will expand service between Long Beach Airport and cities in the Midwest and the East Coast.

Among the airline’s major connecting airports are Chicago Midway, Baltimore/Washington, Houston Hobby and Dallas Love Field—all markets currently without direct flights from Long Beach—in addition to Southwest’s hubs in Denver, Oakland, Las Vegas and Phoenix, all of which are currently directly connected to Long Beach.

“With the slots in the oven, be assured we are spending this holiday season baking up some good things for our customers in the LA Basin who prefer the ease and convenience of the Long Beach Airport experience,” a Southwest spokesperson said. “At play, of course, is the overall demand for travel, which is shaping our scheduling from coast to coast.”

Passengers board a Southwest flight at Long Beach Airport. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

One indicator that Long Beach is well positioned for additional long-haul flights, particularly over nearby John Wayne Airport, is its runway length. While Boeing 737 class aircraft are generally able to land on runways between 5,000 and 5,500 feet long, they require longer runways—between 7,000 and 8,500 feet—to depart when at maximum takeoff weight.

Long Beach’s longest runway is 10,000 feet, while John Wayne’s is 5,701, making certain takeoffs potentially out of reach for hundreds of 737-800s in the Southwest fleet when the aircraft are loaded to their maximum takeoff weight.

The Southwest fleet is entirely made up of Boeing 737 series aircraft, with additional orders for nearly 300 more 737 MAX-type aircraft. The Boeing 737 MAX had been grounded since March 2019 pending an extensive Federal Aviation Administration investigation of two crashes less than five months apart that killed a combined 346 people. However, last month, the FAA announced the completion of its investigation and rescinded the order that grounded the aircraft.

Southwest first began Long Beach operations in 2016 with just four of the airport’s 53 daily flight slots. In April, flight slots abandoned by JetBlue were awarded to Southwest, putting the two air carriers on a level playing field in terms of flight slots at 17 each.

When JetBlue announced its departure from Long Beach in July, airport officials offered up the 17 soon-to-be-vacated slots to remaining airlines, including Hawaiian, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines. Ultimately, in the midst of the pandemic, Southwest was the only airline to take on more slots, requesting and being awarded all 17.

“Southwest, now being our dominant carrier, has really thought about their investment in Long Beach and what they want to offer to our community. And that’s exciting,” Guidry said. “It provides greater flexibility for our passengers by having more offerings out there.”