Southwest Airlines adds new routes, new cities for Sacramento fliers

An air liner lands at the Sacramento International Airport in Sacramento on Wednesday, January 20, 2016.
An air liner lands at the Sacramento International Airport in Sacramento on Wednesday, January 20, 2016. rbenton@sacbee.com

Southwest Airlines on Thursday announced the biggest boost in flights at Sacramento International Airport since the recession a decade ago – six daily flights this year, including new routes to Long Beach and Spokane, and added flights on existing routes to Seattle and San Diego.

That brings Southwest’s total to 80 flights a day in Sacramento, making the capital city the 16th busiest airport in Southwest’s 100-city service base. Southwest is Sacramento’s largest carrier, providing more than half of the airport’s daily flights.

“The California economy is strong, and the Sacramento economy is strong. People are traveling more, so we are responding,” said Andrew Watterson, a Southwest vice president.

Southwest said it will launch two additional daily flights to Seattle in June. It will add an additional flight to San Diego that month as well. The airline will begin service to Long Beach in August with two daily flights, and will offer one daily flight to Spokane that month.

Watterson said more people are willing to fly shorter distances lately, such as between Sacramento and Long Beach, instead of driving. That reverses a trend that started after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, when extra airport security measures caused air travel to become more of a hassle.

Mark Haneke, Sacramento airport’s air service manager, said it is notable that Sacramento is now the 16th most important city in Southwest’s empire. “We are starting to get into the big leagues with Southwest,” he said.

Haneke said the increased flights and airline competition should result in better-priced fares over time. The Sacramento airport is on a three-year upswing, topping 10 million passengers last year for the first time since 2007, before the recession.

“We are growing, but at a healthy, sustainable clip,” Haneke said.

Thursday’s Southwest announcement comes a few months after competitor Alaska Airlines purchased California-based Virgin America, making it the second largest California carrier behind Southwest, signaling increased competition between the two airlines for the top spot in California.

“Our goal from the very beginning of this merger was to become the go-to airline for people on the West Coast,” Alaska head Brad Tilden wrote on that airline’s website.

Alaska, the fifth largest carrier in Sacramento, recently announced three daily flights between Sacramento and San Diego, as well as seasonal flights to Cabo San Lucas, beginning in June.

United Airlines also recently announced a new flight from Sacramento to Newark, beginning in June.

Seth Kaplan of Airline Weekly, a publication covering commercial airline industry, said continued low fuel prices and the growing California economy are emboldening airlines to be more assertive on route expansions.

“Alaska clearly is interested in giving Southwest a run for its money in terms of who is going to dominate the West Coast and California in particular,” he said.

Southwest’s Thursday announcement could be viewed as a retort, he said. “ ‘You are not going to touch our lead here in Sacramento.’ ” Southwest added daily flights to Baltimore and new service to Boise last year, and added daily non-stop flights last month to Salt Lake City.

Southwest’s Watterson on Thursday declined to directly address Alaska’s recent moves, but said “almost every airline is interested in California now. We never fell out of love with California.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak