Southwest’s first red-eye flights are coming, but you’ll have to wait

FILE - A Southwest Airlines jet arrives at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix on Dec. 28, 2022. Southwest Airlines announced Wednesday, March 20, 2024, that it has reached a tentative agreement on a new contract with union flight attendants. (AP Photo/Matt York, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Southwest Airlines is preparing to launch overnight flights for the first time in its history.

After hinting at the change last year, the Dallas-based carrier plans to add overnight flights from Las Vegas and Hawaii, Chief Commercial Officer Ryan Green said at an air travel conference Wednesday. The airline still has a few technical and labor details to work out before the flights can begin, but it hopes to get them in the air in about two years, Green said.

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Green added that he sees an opportunity for about 50 red-eye flights a day at Southwest.

Red eyes, so called for the appearance of travelers’ eyes after missing a night of sleep, are ubiquitous at most major airlines. Travelers book them for what are often cheaper fares than daytime flights. For travelers from the West Coast, they also offer the advantage of leaving after work and arriving on the East Coast the next day in time for a breakfast meeting.

And airlines like overnight flights because they can generate more revenue from an airplane that would otherwise sit idle at an airport until the next morning.

Las Vegas’s Harry Reid International Airport boasted no fewer than 26 overnight flights departing after 9 p.m. on almost every U.S. airline on a random Thursday in March, data from aviation analytics firm Cirium Diio shows. These flights, which are typically over four hours, connect Sin City to cities such as Atlanta, Boston, New York and D.C.

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Southwest plays catch up on red eyes

Southwest is beloved by travelers for its quirkiness, all-economy seating with no seat assignments and free checked bags. What it is not known for is being on the forefront of travel technology. Remember the plastic boarding cards you picked up at the gate well into the 2000s? Or the Great Meltdown of 2022?

For most of its 50-plus years flying, Southwest could not offer anything more than daytime flights in the U.S. due to limits with its reservations system. That changed in 2014 when it began implementing a new, modern booking system from airline IT provider Amadeus to launch international flights. Overnight flights became possible in 2017 when the platform was fully adopted.

It took another six years before Southwest began selling tickets with overnight connections last July.

Southwest CEO Robert Jordan in November described the possibility of overnight flights at the airline as the latest “evolution” of its business model.

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Cheap, easy growth

Southwest, like most airlines, is in a bind. Aviation supply chain issues mean many of the new planes it has ordered from Boeing are years behind schedule. Costs are also up thanks to inflation and new post-pandemic labor agreements.

Boeing’s issues have forced Southwest to cut its growth plans this year. Instead of 79 new 737 Max planes, it will only take around 46.

“We have to be maniacally focused on being efficient,” Green said, adding that the airline wants to grow but without “adding to the cost structure.”

Enter overnight flights.

Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst at investment bank Raymond James, said in an email that adding red-eye flights would allow Southwest to grow at less cost than buying new planes.

“In the Hawaii-mainland U.S. market, red-eye flight capabilities should enable more connections or just a better schedule than Southwest can offer today,” she added.

That’s good news for the many loyal Southwest fliers in, say, Dallas or Kansas City, Mo., whose only flight option home from Hawaii is to lose an entire day to travel.

Similarly, more flights from Las Vegas could help slow fare increases. The average U.S. domestic airfare from the city, not including added fees such as checked bags or seat assignments, was up 12 percent to $264.38 in the third quarter of last year compared with 2019, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. Airfares were down 6 percent when adjusted for inflation.

“Southwest’s significant volume of red-eye flights will bring additional capacity to an already crowded Las Vegas market,” said Seth Miller, an airline analyst and editor of the PaxEx.Aero website. “Passengers should benefit as destination options expand and fares remain competitive.”

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