On December 16th, Southwest Airlines officially announced that it will begin serving Fresno Yosemite Int’l Airport starting in the spring of 2021. Many Valley residents were delighted with the news: Southwest Airlines has been one of the most wished-for national companies among Fresnans (possibly rivaled only by Ikea). While Southwest confirmed that it will begin flying to Fresno (as well as Santa Barbara), the airline did not say where it would fly, how many flights it would initially offer, or exactly when it would begin service. This has led to a lot of speculation, so now seems like a good time to explore the possible destinations that Southwest Airlines will serve from Fresno.
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What The First Southwest Flights Will Look Like
The only detail that Southwest gave about its new service to Fresno is that it will begin in “the second quarter of 2021.” It’s fairly likely that the first flights will start in late May or early June; this will give Southwest time to ramp-up service before the summer travel season, which is usually the busiest time of the year for airlines (but could be muted this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic). It’s also fairly likely that Southwest will initially offer 5-8 flights per day from Fresno. Southwest began service to Palm Springs with 5 flights per day, and is beginning service in Jackson, MS with 6 flights per day; Fresno would likely follow a similar pattern. It’s also likely that Southwest will offer more than one destination from Fresno in its initial offerings; Southwest serves multiple destinations from nearly all of the airports it has a presence at. So, let’s take a look at possible destinations Southwest will serve when it begins flying to Fresno in mid-2021.
|Destination Airport||Odds Of Serving Initially||Probable Flights Per Day|
|1. Las Vegas (LAS)||5:1||2-3|
|2. Denver (DEN)||3:1||1-2|
|3. Phoenix (PHX)||2:1||1-2|
|4. San Diego (SAN)||3:2||1-2|
|5. Oakland (OAK)||1:1||1-2|
|6. Los Angeles (LAX)||1:2||1-2|
|7. Honolulu (HNL)||1:3||1|
|8. Houston (HOU)||1:4||1|
|9. Chicago (MDW)||1:5||1|
Las Vegas is the most likely destination for Southwest from Fresno. The most compelling reason for this is the history of strong demand between Fresno and Las Vegas. For most of the late 2000’s, three airlines flew between Fresno and Vegas, including SkyWest (United Express), America West (US Airways), and Allegiant Air. An average of around 100,000 passengers per year flew between Fresno and Vegas in the years leading up to 2011, when US Airways pulled almost all of its non-hub flying out of Las Vegas (SkyWest pulled out of the route for the same reasons a couple of years later). Allegiant Air, an ultra low-cost carrier, has had a monopoly on the Fresno to Vegas route ever since. While demand has remained strong, only about 72,000 passengers flew from Fresno to Vegas in 2019, meaning there is likely room for another carrier on the route. Based on the continued strong demand to Vegas, the continued overall growth of passengers at FAT, and the reluctance of some Fresnans to deal with Allegiant’s “ultra low cost” business model, it’s likely that Southwest will do very well with Vegas-bound travelers from Fresno.
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Another reason why Las Vegas is such a likely candidate for service from Fresno is the abundance of connecting opportunities there. Southwest offers non-stop flights to 55 destinations from Las Vegas, making it one of the airline’s largest hubs. Las Vegas is close enough to Fresno that it makes sense for both onward (eastbound) connections, as well as connections to some West Coast cities, such as Reno, Seattle, and Portland. Considering the large demand for travel to Las Vegas from Fresno, the proximity of the two airports, and the diversity of connecting options at LAS, it would be extremely surprising not to see Las Vegas as one of the first destinations that Southwest offers from Fresno.
2. Denver (DEN)
If Denver were any closer to Fresno, it would probably be the most likely initial destination for Southwest. Denver has grown steadily to become Southwest’s largest hub in the western half of the United States, serving nearly 20 more non-stop destinations than Las Vegas. Notable among the non-stop destinations Southwest offers from Denver that it doesn’t from Las Vegas are New York LaGuardia (LGA), Washington Dulles (IAD), Philadelphia (PHL), and Boston (BOS). Denver also has very strong demand from Fresno as a final destination, finishing 2019 as the fourth most popular non-stop domestic city.
Denver finishes second to Las Vegas for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s much further away than Vegas, making some of the connecting destinations it offers not practical for passengers arriving from Fresno (hardly anyone is going to fly to Denver to then connect back to San Diego, Oakland, LA, or Portland, for example). The second is that Southwest has shown that it prefers to begin serving new airports with shorter routes, and Las Vegas is less than half the distance from Fresno that Denver is. Still, it would be very surprising not to see at least one daily flight from Fresno to Denver as part of Southwest’s initial offerings to give Fresno access to all of the connecting options that are available there.3. Phoenix (PHX)
Phoenix is another popular final destination from Fresno and another large hub for Southwest. American Airlines been slowly been upguaging its flights from Fresno to Phoenix, and future schedules show multiple mainline flights per day from FAT to PHX in 2021. Allegiant tried flying to a secondary airport in Phoenix in the mid-2010’s, and while those flights were not successful, they did show that the Phoenix region is a popular final destination for Fresnans. While Southwest’s PHX hub offers fewer destinations than Denver, it’s also closer than DEN, and it has some connecting opportunities that Vegas does not. The one thing working against Phoenix is that it would not really add much in the way of connecting options to Fresno if Southwest chose to serve both Las Vegas and Denver. Because of that, Phoenix is not a lock for being in Southwest’s initial offering from Fresno, but its status as a large hub and popular destination from Fresno still puts it solidly at #3.4. San Diego (SAN)
San Diego has been an extremely popular destination from Fresno since Alaska Airlines began non-stop service, and Southwest might try to steal some of the nearly 100% market share that the Seattle-based airline enjoys on the route. Alaska has been steadily growing its FAT-SAN route, and will offer four flights per day in the summer of 2021. While Southwest does not have an especially large number of connecting options in San Diego, it does fly from SAN non-stop to two popular vacation destinations for Fresnans: Honolulu and Los Cabos. Presumably, Southwest could offer a one-stop option to one or both of those vacation destinations from Fresno through San Diego, and capture many passengers bound just for San Diego at the same time. Like Phoenix, San Diego is not a slam dunk for Southwest from Fresno, but it is certainly high up on the list of options.5. Oakland (OAK)
As mentioned earlier, Southwest is likely to choose destinations that are relatively close to Fresno for its initial offerings. Because of this, it’s quite possible that Southwest will decide to offer flights from Fresno to Oakland. Oakland is a large focus city for Southwest, but it also does not offer nearly as many non-stop destinations as Las Vegas, Denver, or Phoenix. Additionally, Oakland does not have an especially large amount of demand for “O&D” travel from Fresno (meaning that very few people would only fly only to Oakland – many people would rather drive to the Bay Area than fly).
What Oakland does offer, however, are numerous connections to Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, two areas that are difficult to get to through Denver, Phoenix, or Vegas. Southwest has shown that it will operate routes based almost solely on connecting traffic (the airline flies from Colorado Springs to Denver – a flight that can take as little as 15 minutes and is about as long of a trip as Fresno to Modesto), so it would not be surprising to see Oakland among Southwest’s initial destinations from FAT.6. Los Angeles (LAX)
Los Angeles is on this list for some of the same reasons that Oakland is: it’s relatively close to Fresno, and it’s a focus city for Southwest. There is slightly more demand for travel to Southern California as a final (O&D) destination from Fresno than there is to the Bay Area, and two airlines have added new service from Fresno to Los Angeles in the past year. However, Southwest does not currently offer flights from Los Angles to Hawaii, and LAX is further from the Pacific Northwest than OAK is, meaning LAX does not add a lot of connecting options over the airports listed above it. All of this together makes Los Angeles slightly less likely than Oakland.