Points, miles, and snide remarks.


Southwest Airlines Faces Capacity Crunch at Orange County Airport

Southwest Airlines is facing a predicament at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport (SNA), where it seems like airline passengers might not be the airport’s favorite crowd – a rather ironic twist considering it’s, well, an airport.

Back in 1985, noise concerns prompted a settlement that imposed restrictions on airport operations to the south. While modern planes have significantly reduced noise levels, there are still curfews in place, especially for late-night and early-morning departures (with Sundays having restrictions until 8 a.m.). The Board of Supervisors in Orange County has also set annual passenger limits for the airport, which translates into a slot program. Curiously, these passenger limits, though now framed as environmental concerns, tend to reward airlines for flying planes with empty seats.

Southwest Airlines, being the biggest player in the game at Orange County Airport, found themselves with a reduced allocation of 44 daily departures for 2023, down from 57 flights in the previous year. The airport’s method for determining these allocations is pretty straightforward – they take a guesstimate of how full flights will be and use that to back into the current cap of 11.8 million allowable passengers. And that’s how many flights they’ll allow.

However, it seems like Southwest has been a bit too optimistic with their seat-filling strategy, as they’ve recently informed their employees that they’ve got a situation to handle in Orange County. In an attempt to balance the need for adequate commercial air transportation facilities with the local community’s desire for environmentally friendly operations, Orange County’s SNA airport has mandated that all airlines must reduce capacity on flights to and from the airport for the remainder of the year. As a result, Revenue Management has decided to put the brakes on the lid for Southwest’s SNA flights operating between September 9 and December 21, 2023. Existing reservations remain unaffected.

In an effort to balance the needs of the Orange County community for adequate commercial air transportation facilities and the desire of the local community for environmentally responsible air transportation operations, SNA is requiring all airlines to reduce capacity on flights traveling to/from the airport through the end of the year. As a result, Revenue Management has lowered the lids on our SNA flights operating between September 9 and December 21, 2023. This will not impact existing reservations. Employees should not overbook any SNA flights through December 31, 2023.

Now, what’s really interesting is how these restrictions play out in practice. Some flights are still selling tickets to as many as 143 or 175 passengers (the maximum capacity of Southwest’s 737-700 and -800/MAX 8 series aircraft, respectively) without any cap, while others have their passenger counts limited to 100 or, in some cases, a mere 79 passengers! If you happen to be flying in and out of Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, you might just get lucky with an empty middle seat beside you.

But, here’s the thing – it’s essential to reiterate this point: flying planes with empty seats isn’t necessarily a win for the environment. In reality, it might even be worse. The plane is still up in the air, and folks still need to reach their destinations via alternative means. So, it’s a puzzle that needs solving, but the solution might not be as straightforward as it seems.