Aruba, The Bahamas, and Jamaica. These three sunny destinations just got added to Southwest Airlines’ routes. Indeed, the largest domestic carrier in the U.S. announced its first international flights today.
Daily nonstop flights will begin July 1 from Atlanta to Aruba and Montego Bay; Baltimore to Aruba and Nassau plus twice-daily flights to Montego Bay; and Saturday flights from Orlando to Aruba and Montego Bay.
The first phase of this international expansion plan includes the continuing integration of AirTran Airways, which Southwest bought in 2011, with flights between Atlanta and Nassau; Chicago Midway and Montego Bay; and flights to/from Cancun, Los Cabos, and Mexico City, Mexico, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. By year’s end, Southwest plans to serve 96 destinations in six countries.
“We’ve spoken publicly to our desire, plan and intention to convert all of Airtran’s existing international destinations by the end of 2014,” Southwest spokesperson Brad Hawkins told Yahoo Travel. “Those remaining include Mexico destinations in Cabo San Lucas, Los Cabos, Mexico City and Cancun. Then, Punta Cana and the Dominican Republic."
During a separate press conference Thursday, President and CEO Gary Kelly reported that AirTran’s remaining Boeing 737-700s will convert to Southwest service this year. “As planned, this will allow us to complete the AirTran integration and retire the brand by the end of 2014,” he said.
Kelly said construction is under way for an international facility in Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport, scheduled to open in late 2015. What, Kelly forsees, “…can accommodate Southwest service to destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and the northern cities of South America.”
Future SWA international service is also pegged for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, with the airline constructing a new five-gate concourse with an international processing facility.
Travel Industry Analyst & Strategist Henry H. Harteveldt of Hudson Crossing, LLC told Yahoo Travel he sees this move as a plus for both the airline and travelers. “Southwest’s extensive route network in the U.S. means that travelers should find it easy to find and book flights via the three gateway hubs (Atlanta, Baltimore, and Orlando) that Southwest will use for these new flights.”
Current one-way fares set for July 1 between destinations like Atlanta to Aruba range from $479 to $188, and from Baltimore to Montego Bay $465 to $210. “From Southwest’s strong value proposition — the airline’s CEO said he thought the Caribbean was ‘over-fared,’ or expensive so perhaps we can expect to see some more attractive prices offered,”says Harteveldt.
Customer reaction to today’s announcement? Melanie Terrell, a frequent business traveler from San Francisco, was skeptical at first. “Because you can’t reserve seats with Southwest, I didn’t think it would be a choice I’d make unless I was desperate,” she told Yahoo Travel. “Then I thought, compared to issues with other airlines, flying internationally with Southwest isn’t a bad way to go.”
Washington, D.C., resident Susan Snyder, who often travels with family, had similar concerns. “I’ve traveled alone with two kids on Southwest in the past and it was a nightmare,” she said. “The first flight, we got there early and could pre-board. The second flight shifted, resulting in no pre-boarding and my five-year-old having to sit somewhere else on the plane. I’d consider Southwest’s international flights if they’re a lot cheaper and I’m not traveling with kids.”
Southwest believes its fares and current boarding system will meet with the approval of international travelers. “Anytime Southwest comes in, it’s going to be an improvement because we’re going to offer the lowest average fare flown on the market,” says Hawkins. “That means when you look at last-minute fares versus sale fares, we’re going to have the best price. Not even including bags fly free, no-change fees and those things that come with Southwest Airlines, which add value.” As for seating issues, Hawkins says, “Our boarding is one of the things our customers love about Southwest. We mitigate this issue by offering family boarding at the end of our A boarding group and making concessions in order to seat families together.”
Now that the ball has started rolling on SWA’s international flights, what does the future hold? Harteveldt shared his thoughts based on comments Kelly made in today’s press conference. “Southwest plans to allocate between 70 and 80 aircraft to international flying. That’s a considerable number of aircraft, and will likely represent 10% or more of the airline’s total fleet. What’s also intriguing is that the airline is eyeing both flights to Hawaii and longer-distance international flying, both of which should help the airline increase its appeal and utility to travelers.”