In 2017, Southwest's team of network planners noticed a sudden surge in demand for flights from West Texas to Las Vegas in early December.
"We were like 'why is West Texas to Vegas all of a sudden popping? Oh, my gosh, it's a rodeo,'" recalled Adam Decaire, who heads network planning at Southwest Airlines. The airline quickly added service from several cities in West Texas, including Amarillo and Lubbock, to Las Vegas, which was hosting the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo that December. An altogether new destination requires the blessing of Southwest's CEO but planners frequently pitch service for events or popular cities, Decaire said.
Airlines, enjoying a decadelong stretch of profitability and better planning technology, are chasing trendy destinations and special events, an effort to capture high-paying customers that need to get to big trade shows like the Consumer Electronics Show, championship games, or even the new "it" city.
Carriers are trying to make more profitable use of their aircraft, particularly in slower periods like the winter. They're tallying traveler queries and building schedules around their searches as they edge toward crowdsourcing where and when they fly.
Getting the formula right is taking on new importance for several major U.S. airlines that can't grow as planned because of the worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 Max, now entering its 11th month.
American, Delta and United are among the airlines that have added service or added capacity through larger aircraft to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, which officially kicks off Tuesday. Some services extend to the airport. Delta, for example, whose CEO Ed Bastian is delivering a keynote address at CES on Tuesday, is providing CES badge pickup for attendees flying Delta at airports in Seattle, San Jose, California and at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. The airline also added capacity to Las Vegas from London, Paris, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul for the event.
But airlines' chase of conference-goers isn't limited to CES. For a second year, United is adding service in February to Barcelona's Mobile World Congress, the world's largest telecommunications trade show that drew more than 100,000 attendees in 2019.
This year, United will fly four special nonstops from San Francisco to Barcelona on a 350-seat Boeing 777-300ER, the largest aircraft in its fleet, up from two round trips on a smaller version of the 777 last year, equaling a 160% increase in seats and 150% in business-class seats from 2019.
"We try to experiment. If the experiment fails it will fail fast." said Patrick Quayle, head of international network planning at United. "We're not going to be flying these flights if they lose money."
It hasn't failed for United. Round-trip business-class seats on the nonstop San Francisco to Barcelona route as of Monday night were fetching more than $19,000, more than double the fare a week before or after the event. Coach flights are around the same $2,560 when United goes back to its regular routing that requires a stop. Round-trip fares from Newark, New Jersey, to Barcelona during that week are going for $1,960 in coach and close to $11,000 in business class, falling to $1,070 and $6,800, respectively, a week later.
Over the past few years, United has been able to plan for such events thanks to better data and more specialized staff whereas before "it was more of a scramble," said Quayle.
Airlines have been refreshing their first- and business-class cabins to chase those high-paying travelers. United, for example, has been outfitting some of its Boeing 767s to include more business class seats on flights to London from its hubs at Newark and Chicago. Delta, for its part, now even breaks out its premium-class sales, as the front of the plane becomes a bigger and bigger source of revenue for the Atlanta-based airline.
United's network planners are also adding destinations based on customer searches, such as Reykjavik, which was the one of the most-searched destinations on its site before it added service to the Icelandic capital in 2018, Quayle said. The carrier also added added Porto, Portugal that summer, and last month, a nonstop from Newark to Cape Town, South Africa.
"It's a focus on premium leisure," he said.
Airlines have for decades added service for events like the Super Bowl, but they have grown more sophisticated about where and when to add service and how much to charge, said Robert Mann, a former airline executive who runs R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consulting firm.
"It's a market based economy and when there's a mismatch between capacity the market ought to charge higher fares," he said. "When there's infinite demand you don't have to be a low-cost carrier."
United isn't the only airline to chase such destinations or special events.
As soon as the College Football Playoff semifinals ended last month, American Airlines added service from Greenville-Spartanburg airport, near Clemson University to New Orleans, where the South Carolina school will face off against Louisiana State University on Jan. 13.
In July, the Fort Worth, Texas-based American, which usually operates connecting flights out of its large hub airports, added nonstop service for college football games such as between Birmingham, Alabama, and College Station, Texas, when the University of Alabama faced off against Texas A&M University.
The solid profits and stability of the U.S. airline industry compared with the boom-and-bust cycles of decades past allows them to more nimble, said United's Quayle.
"You couldn't do these extra credit items," he said.