How Southwest has adapted to life without the 737 Max

Nearly a year into the grounding of Boeing's 737 Max, Southwest has reshaped its complex network in unique ways.

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Before sunrise on March 13, 2019, Southwest Airlines’ fleet of 753 Boeing 737s began its daily schedule. The operational fleet would be reduced to 719 by the end of that day, a reduction of 34 of its largest and most efficient aircraft. In one afternoon, almost 5% of Southwest’s fleet was unusable for the business of flying revenue passengers.

The 737 Max groundings affected all the airplane’s operators, however none more than Southwest which operated the largest fleet at the time. Now, 344 days later, Southwest’s 34 737 Max aircraft remain parked, with at least 27 past due from Boeing. This, in addition to the six aircraft retirements that took place in 2019, leave Southwest with just over 710 aircraft to operate what should have been a 770 aircraft network, according to its recently-published annual report.

Related: Southwest wants a small airplane from Boeing or Airbus and that could reshape aviation

Regardless of the grounding, Southwest still has a dynamic network to manage. It is easy to assume Southwest’s network would remain as it was immediately following the grounding, but the realities and complexities of passenger demand are not as frozen as its fleet numbers since the grounding took hold. The unique nature of the single fleet requires Southwest to have both a deeply complex and operationally-stable network, the result of decades of fine-tuning. Competitors are undoubtedly encroaching on the corners of the network where the lack of aircraft leaves a market vulnerable.

Add to this the rolling nature of the groundings and disproportionate strain is placed on the point-to-point Southwest network which relies heavily on the high utilization of its aircraft. Yet, it is within these limitations that Southwest has found unique opportunities (and challenges) to manage their network, leveraging operational and commercial assets to extract the most revenue possible out of a fleet 7% smaller than predicted a year ago.

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