While other airlines at Denver International Airport plan substantial job cuts set to take effect in the months ahead, Southwest Airlines is making it clear it is betting on travel demand coming back amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, Southwest announced its new route connecting Denver with Steamboat Springs via the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden will debut on Dec. 19. Weekend service connecting Dallas with the Steamboat area will also begin that day.
“We have a lot of beach towns we serve but we’re missing part of the equation, which is mountain towns for the winter,” Southwest chief revenue officer Andrew Watterson said. “This is our first foray into this market.”
The Denver-to-Hayden and Hayden-to-Denver flights will fly three times per day from Dec. 19 through April 5, according to Southwest’s announcement. Service between Dallas and Hayden will run once per day on Saturdays and Sundays during that same window. One-way tickets on select Denver flights are going for as low as $49 if booked before 11 p.m. Thursday.
For a ski town not along Colorado’s high-traffic Interstate 70 corridor, the impending arrival of Southwest is a “game-changer,” according to Rob Perlman, president and chief operating officer of the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.
“Southwest Airlines’ popularity, connectivity, and low-cost fares equals more access for skiers and snowboarders to the champagne powder snow of Steamboat,” Perlman said in a statement.
In the past two months, Southwest’s DIA mates United Airlines and Frontier Airlines have both announced plans for large-scale furloughs, racing to cut costs as the novel coronavirus crisis continues to wreak havoc of air travel demand.
United announced in July that it plans to furlough nearly 36,000 U.S. workers indefinitely starting Oct. 1. That includes more than 2,800 that work in Denver. Frontier, based in the Mile High City, plans to furlough almost 1,500 pilots and flight attendants — including a combined 398 that in Colorado — also as soon as Oct. 1.
Federal stimulus dollars that have been keeping the airline industry afloat since the spring run out Sept. 30. Despite Frontier CEO Barry Biffle’s claims about the safety of air travel compared to other activities during the pandemic, public polling earlier this summer found that 52% of American did not feel comfortable with the idea of boarding a plane.
Southwest has vowed that it will not furlough any workers or cut pay in 2020, Watterson said, with its finances relatively strong coming into the crisis.
The company has taken its share of blows from the virus. Southwest’s August flight schedule is down 26% compared to last year, Watterson said, though he emphasized that traffic in and out of Denver is flat compared to 2019. Earlier this month, USA Today obtained an internal memo to Southwest flight attendants instructing them to stop cleaning armrests and seat belts between flights and instead focus on high-touch areas like tray tables and bathrooms.
Watterson said that as more information about how the virus spreads has emerged, the airline has shifted its focus away from cleaning surfaces as often and focused on distancing and transmission through the air. Health safety measures include mandatory masks for all flyers over the age of 2, empty middle seats on all flights and using electrostatic sprayers to apply antimicrobial material to the interiors of all planes every 20 to 30 days.
Colorado’s handling of the virus response — keeping hospitalizations low in recent months while partially reopening businesses — is what gave Southwest the confidence to move forward with its previously announced plans to fly to the Steamboat area. Along with the airline’s under-construction maintenance hangar and its new lease for 16 more gates being built at DIA, Watterson said the new route is a “recommitment” to the city and state.
“We have not wavered during COVID in our commitment to Denver and Colorado,” he said.