Southwest Stretches to the Caribbean

Southwest Airlines

I might as well begin with today’s Southwest Flight 1804 that departed Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) for Aruba, the first of six new international routes for the Dallas-based carrier. A few minutes later, another Southwest flight took off for Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Over the years, Southwest Airlines, the largest domestic carrier in the U.S., has turned every right direction they could find. Building destination upon destination.

Yesterday the carrier also flew to Nassau, Bahamas, from BWI. And from Atlanta they launched service to Aruba and Montego Bay.

On July 5 they begin Saturday-only service between Orlando and Montego Bay.

Next month from Milwaukee and Orange County, Calif., Southwest takes off to Cancún and Los Cabos, Mexico, In November they begin service to Mexico City and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

For now, international Southwest routes are destinations served by AirTran Airways, which Southwest acquired in May 2011. Air Tran is finally fading out of its international markets, which were a big reason why Southwest bought Air Tran.

By the end of the year, Air Tran will be history. Its last flight is scheduled from Atlanta to Tampa Bay, Fla., on Dec. 28.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly believes the company’s emerging international service represents a huge growth opportunity. “This opens up all of North America to us,” Kelly told USA Today.

“We’ve been making a pivot over the last five to 10 years to be less dependent on short-haul markets and prepare the airline better for flying longer distances and longer times for our customers,” Kelly said. “So we’ve changed our frequent-flier program. We’ve changed our boarding process. And we’ve offered more choices for business customers.”

But one thing that Kelly said won’t change is its no-charge position on checked baggage or ticket changes, which are rainmaker ancillary fees that have led to record profits for most U.S. legacy carriers.

“We have absolutely no plans to charge, especially for bags,” Kelly told USA Today. “I won’t promise that into infinity, I don’t think that’s fair. But we have absolutely no plans to ever charge for them, and I hope we never do.”

Nonetheless, when it comes to international flights Southwest is a bit player. Its competitors fly about 40 percent of capacity on international routes. Southwest estimates that “international flying represents only about 1 percent of AirTran and Southwest capacity in 2014.”

None of Southwest’s international flights depart from its home at Dallas Love Field.

The Wright Amendment, which has limited service out of Love Field expires Oct. 13, allowing carriers to fly nonstop to any U.S. destination. As a consequence Southwest will add 15 cities out of Dallas, including New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Seven routes start up Oct. 13, the other eight begin Nov. 2.

But the federal law remains like a huge crane in the middle of the Love Field tarmac, banning nonstop service from Dallas to outside the U.S.

The Tarmac’s View:  Starting in 1971 from point blank nothing, Southwest has now stepped into international travel. It’s a place they’ll never come out of again. And they’ll reach those faraway places, most of which are the kind of place where people propose to each other, from all over the U.S. rather than just a few key hubs like many of the legacy carriers.

Domestically, they fly coast-to-coast from every major city in the lower 48 except Cincinnati. They say they’ve “pinpointed 50 potential destinations that could be several hundred aircraft worth of growth, opening up Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and even the northern tier of South America.”

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