How Southwest Became California’s ‘Unofficial Airline’

If you live in California, you probably know that Southwest Airlines dominates air travel here.

Southwest is the state’s busiest airline, and more of its flights depart from California than from any other state in the nation, including Texas, where the company began. Southwest is the top airline at seven of California’s 10 busiest airports, accounting for more than half of all air traffic at the airports in Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose, Burbank and Long Beach.

“Southwest is almost the unofficial airline of California,” Henry Harteveldt, an airlines analyst for Atmosphere Research Group, told my colleague Shawn Hubler after the airline’s flight cancellations during the holidays left passengers stranded across the country.

By Friday, the airline appeared to be back on track. But as Shawn and I recently wrote, Southwest’s highly publicized woes have rattled the confidence of travelers and commuters who rely on the airline to shuttle between Northern and Southern California. Despite mild winter weather, California’s medium-size airports had some of the worst cancellation rates in the nation last week because Southwest accounts for so much of their traffic.

Going forward, “just because the flights are operating, doesn’t mean the customers will be there,” Harteveldt, who is based in San Francisco, said. “I think this event has weakened trust among travelers and done substantial damage to Southwest’s brand.”

Gemma Evans, a journalist who lives in San Mateo, said she was frustrated by Southwest’s last-minute cancellation of her flight last week to San Francisco International Airport from Burbank. For hours, Southwest’s flight status web page conflicted with its phone app, which had different information from the text alerts she received.

Once Evans and her husband confirmed that their flight was canceled, they drove a rental car for eight hours through a rainstorm, with their 11-month-old in the back seat, to get home to the Bay Area.

“Not getting answers from them when we needed them has left us with a sour taste in our mouth,” Evans, 38, said. “I think in the future we’ll prioritize other airlines.”

Southwest started in 1967 as a way to ferry passengers between Texas cities, inspired by California’s now-defunct Pacific Southwest Airlines, a pioneer of intrastate discount air travel. Southwest has grown steadily and has become one of the nation’s four largest airlines, serving routes across the country. The airline is also an essential mode of transportation for Californians who need to travel the length of the state for work or school or to visit relatives.

Two-thirds of all seats for sale on flights within California are on Southwest flights, according to Mike Arnot, a spokesman for Cirium, an aviation analytics company. (United is a very distant second with 13 percent.)

California state legislators rely on Southwest to get to Sacramento from their districts, which is particularly important this week with the new legislative session beginning on Wednesday. “The Legislature is totally dependent on Southwest functioning,” said Tom Umberg, a Democratic state senator who has commuted to the Capitol from Orange County for years.

Casey Hultin, 33, a traveling trial lawyer who lives in Oakland, typically takes Southwest flights about twice a week to get to courts in Southern California. The weekday planes are filled with intra-California commuters like her, she said, because no other airline offers the same flexibility or frequency of flights within the state.

Even after the meltdown last week — one of her own flights was canceled — she’s going to stick to Southwest, Hultin told me. “This is still, by far, the best option.”

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Today’s tip comes from Marion Becker, who lives in Davis:

“The arboretum on the U.C. Davis campus offers a beautiful, free and educational walk for anyone, including those who rely on a wheelchair. Putah Creek meanders through the space with many arched footbridges spanning it. There are sections of the arboretum depicting various climates in the state with native plants from different regions. At certain times of the year when showy trees or plants are in bloom, the space gets crowded but it’s nice to know it is being appreciated.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Do you have resolutions for the new year? Email us at

The lights came down over the weekend in one of California’s best decorated holiday neighborhoods, but not before thousands of people came to visit.

The 41 households in the Wakefield Court neighborhood in Santa Clarita go all out for Christmas each year, turning their blocks into a glowing winter wonderland.

The tradition started after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, when neighbors got to know one another better and began stringing up Christmas lights between their houses.

“It just expanded from that,” Shaun Denes, a Wakefield resident, told KTLA. “The lights between each house show the bond between neighbors.”

With so many visitors coming to Wakefield from across Southern California, another resident, Mark Young, began in 1996 to ask for donations to benefit a nonprofit organization that helps unhoused people in Santa Clarita. “Every year we raise anywhere from $2,000 to $12,000 in that box from the folks walking by,” Young told KTLA.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia and Steven Moity contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at

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