Southwest Airlines is landing at O'Hare International Airport in 2021, a seismic move that keeps the existing hub at Midway International Airport but is expected to add new destinations and give travelers more choices.
"We anticipate there'll be some overlap of markets but there could also be additional destinations," Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said. "These decisions are in the works now and we will have more information in the coming weeks.
"We want to make sure we're giving customers a choice of airports and serving the airport that's most convenient for them."
No reductions in Southwest flights at Midway are anticipated, officials said, adding that it remains one of the busiest airports in the airline's network.
Where will Southwest flights at O'Hare travel to?
"Expect Southwest to focus on mid-distance routes, particularly those linking O'Hare to the East Coast, Texas and Florida," said DePaul University aviation expert Joseph Schwieterman.
"I expect more travelers to drive to Chicago to catch Southwest flights on account of the O'Hare strategic location at the intersection of several major interstate expressways."
Southwest, one of the region's larger employers with 4,800 workers in the area, began flying out of Midway in 1985.
"Chicago is one of the strongest and most competitive airport markets in the world, and we are always eager to work with our existing airlines and new entrants on enhancing the service they offer to travelers," Chicago Department of Aviation spokesman Matthew McGrath said.
"This is a vote of confidence in our city and in O'Hare, and we're excited to build on 35 years of partnership with Southwest Airlines."
Southwest is also expanding in Houston.
"Southwest owes decades of success to our employees and customers who have supported our business in Chicago and Houston," CEO Gary Kelly said in a statement.
"Today's announcement furthers our commitment to both cities as we add service to share Southwest's value and hospitality with more leisure and business travelers."
Southwest expects to continue using its fleet of Boeing 737s at O'Hare. Officials would not say if international flights were on the menu although "from Midway, we do offer flights to the Caribbean and Latin America," Landson said.
The change will also add to O'Hare's stature as the nation's busiest airport.
"This provides a great opportunity for travelers in the Chicago region, as well as those originating from ancillary Southwest gateways and connecting through Chicago," AAA spokeswoman Molly Hart said.
It also pushes Southwest, known for its discount fare sales, into turf traditionally dominated by United and American airlines at O'Hare.
"Southwest provides competition and more options for consumers," Hart said.
Schwieterman thinks, "having Southwest part of O'Hare's competitive mix will affect the airport's competitive landscape, and require adjustments by both American and United."
The announcement comes at a time when air traffic has dropped because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It gives passenger demand at O'Hare a real shot in the arm at a time when the outlook is so unclear," said Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. "Southwest is arguably throwing caution to the wind by announcing large-scale expansion while the pandemic's long-term effects are still uncertain."
Where at O'Hare will Southwest's orange and blue fleet nest? Long-term, it's up for grabs as the city is currently embarked on a massive improvement plan that includes a new global terminal.
In the meantime, Schwieterman suggested Southwest planes may be gated at Terminal 5 but "that's only a hunch," he added. "That would also be preferred by American Airlines and United Airlines, having Southwest separated from their hubs."