As travel returns following COVID-19's wrath, Southwest Airlines is doubling down on Austin, Texas.
The airline said Thursday it will add nine new nonstop routes in the spring in response to market demand by both leisure and business travelers.
The airline said it plans to increase service at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport by more than 20 flights per day, offering nonstop service between Austin and 46 destinations on up to 105 departures a day.
On March 10, the airlines said it will begin daily nonstop service to Amarillo, Texas; Midland, Texas; Charleston, S.C.; Columbus, Ohio and Ontario, Calif.
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Service to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and seasonal weekly service to Panama City, Fla.; Sarasota/Bradenton, Fla. and Destin/Fort Walton Beach, Fla., will begin on March 12.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines began service in Austin 44 years ago this week. It is now the dominant carrier at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
"This is the largest single growth in Austin that we've ever had in that 44-year history," said David Harvey, vice president of Southwest business. "When you think about all the residents, the population growth and then what's going on with the corporate climate where you have people opening new offices and moving their headquarters to Austin, the demand is there."
The new flights were timed to launch before spring break season and will serve a range of travelers, Harvey said.
"Customers tell us they want more additional options to get business connectivity, but also beaches have been very hot," he said. "That's why we have three new Florida beach destinations and we're also expanding our international portfolio."
Harvey said leisure travel was back to 2019 levels this summer, but the COVID delta variant slowed the trajectory. Business travel remained down as companies postponed travel amid the COVID delta variant.
"The remaining gap was really the business segment," he said. "I know people have functioned the last 18 months with Zoom platforms. Just like there was pent-up demand on leisure, there is absolutely the same pent-up demand with business."
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Southwest is expecting increased business travel in the fall, Harvey said. "When you think about sales, new business development, new relationships, nothing beats face to face," he said.
In addition to adding nonstop flights in Austin, Southwest is also adding employees. The airline has 450 employees at ABIA.
Southwest is seeking to fill more than 5,000 positions across the country by the end of the year. In Austin, the airline is hiring across the board, including in customer service, ground handling and in leadership roles.
“As Austin and its airport continue to grow, we are excited to welcome these new and expanded services to Central Texas,” said Jacqueline Yaft, CEO of Austin's airport.
In the past several months, airlines have rolled out a number of new nonstop flights into and out of Austin. In May, American Airlines began flying 10 year-round and seasonal routes from ABIA.
Daily, year-round service from Austin to Nashville, Las Vegas, Orlando and New Orleans began in May, with routes to Raleigh-Durham, Tampa and Washington-Dulles starting later in the summer, the airline said.
New Saturday seasonal service to Aspen, Colo., San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, and Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Fla., began in June.
More airlines consider Austin
Other airlines are also adding service from Austin. Alaska Airlines began flights from Austin to Boise, Idaho, in July. Allegiant Air began nonstop flights this summer from Austin to Bozeman, Mont., and Bentonville, Ark.
Meanwhile, low-cost Mexican carrier Viva Aerobus has announced plans to offer nonstop flights to Mexico City and Monterrey. However, those plans are on hold following a decision by the Federal Aviation Administration in May to downgraded its air safety rating for Mexico. The downgrade prohibits the country’s carriers from adding service to the U.S.
Passenger traffic at Austin's airport plunged 63% in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The airport had about 6.5 million passengers last year compared with 17.3 million passengers in 2019, its highest-ever passenger travel year.
The 2020 passenger count is the lowest number for Austin-Bergstrom since the airport opened in 1999. Prior to COVID-19, the airport had recorded 10 consecutive years of record-setting passenger growth.
But there are signs of recovery: The Friday before Labor Day was the airport's busiest day since the pandemic began, with 27,827 passengers.
Although out-of-town visitors are returning to Austin's hotels, restaurants and entertainment districts, industry analysts estimate it will take at least two years for the region's hospitality industry to get back to 2019 levels. The return of business and international travel is expected to take far longer.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Southwest Airlines adds nonstop flights from Austin to 9 destinations