Compared to leisure, business travel has taken longer to recover after COVID-19 essentially shut down airports to everything except essential travel in early 2020. The first quarter of this year, however, has seen a significant uptick in a return to business travel, according to Southwest Airlines executives.

Leisure travel out of Long Beach has made a strong comeback over the past two years, according to city data. In March of this year, about 136,600 people traveled through the small municipal airport, down only about 6% from the roughly 145,200 passengers in March 2019.

“This time last year, we saw robust leisure demand,” Dave Harvey, vice president of Southwest Business, told the Business Journal. “But business demand was still very stagnant. There were very strict ‘thou shalt not travel’ policies well into 2021.”

In September and October of last year, however, companies began approving travel for employees, Harvey said. But the boost was short lived because the holiday season is historically slow for business travel, he added.

Many in the industry expected January to see strong acceleration for business travel, Harvey said, but the omicron variant delayed that resurgence until late February. Despite that, throughout the first quarter, Harvey said Southwest business travel has trended up, rising from 70% below 2019 levels to only 40% below.

“We’ve just seen a really healthy build up in March, April, May and now going into June,” Harvey said, noting that summer isn’t normally as strong as the spring and fall months. “But we’re very excited about what fall is going to bring for business travel.”

In light of increased business travel, Southwest once again invited travel managers from various companies for a tour of Long Beach Airport. Representatives from tech, supply, finance, restaurant and travel firms were escorted through the facility, including the new ticketing lobby, and were given highlights about what the airport has to offer travelers now and in the future.

The opening of the ticketing lobby also included a new checked baggage screening facility. Construction crews also are working on a new baggage claim area, which is expected to open in December of this year. By mid-2023, the airport’s new meet-and-greet area and new car rental facility inside the historic terminal building are expected to be completed, Operations and Facilities Bureau Manager Ron Reeves told those on the tour.

Sonja Free, director of client services for TravelStore, the largest California-based travel agency, said the firm’s clients—70% of whom are corporate travelers—are going to “love the new Long Beach Airport.”

“It was always a great airport as far as convenience: quick check-in, accessibility, etc.,” she said. “Now with the upgraded facilities, it’s going to be even better now.”

June marks the sixth anniversary of Southwest operations out of Long Beach. The air carrier started at the airfield with four flights to the Bay Area but with the departure of JetBlue in 2020, the Texas-based airline quickly became the leader in the city.

Later this year, Southwest will fly a total of 37 daily flights of the airport’s 52 slots, Harvey said.

“The original facility has so much charm,” Harvey said. “But we just put a lot of capacity on an airport. The airport absolutely had to make these investments to keep up with our growth [and] they’re doing a great job.”

Out of Long Beach, Southwest offers direct flights to Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Honolulu, Houston, Las Vegas, Maui, Oakland, Phoenix, Reno, Sacramento, San Jose and St. Louis. The company’s network planning team continuously monitors passenger flight data to determine demand for additional routes such as direct flights to New York or Florida.

“If there’s enough demand, we can take a flight or two and start flying those long-haul nonstops,” Harvey said.

Throughout the pandemic, Southwest expanded—not just in Long Beach through the continued absorption of newly vacated slots, but nationwide. That growth will continue, Harvey said, with the company purchasing hundreds of new aircraft from Boeing over the next decade, including 114 to be delivered this year alone.

The airline retires 30-40 planes due to age each year, Harvey said, but the net gain of the new craft is still significant.

“It’s going to allow us to bring back a lot of the short- and medium-haul parts of our network,” Harvey said. “And this also ties into hiring.”

In the first quarter alone, Harvey said Southwest has hired 5,000 people—pilots, flight attendants, operations agents and customer service—with plans for another 5,000 before the end of the year.

To complement those efforts, the airline also is investing $2 billion into its onboard product, which will benefit business travelers significantly, Harvey said. Aside from expanded food and beverage, and movie and show offerings, the carrier is upgrading onboard Wi-Fi to be 10 times faster as well as adding USB A and C ports at every seat.

“People want to be productive, they want to knock out that email,” Harvey said. “And they want to watch movies, they want to live stream their shows. We need to … support that.”