PUERTO VALLARTA — Southwest Airlines is spreading its wings south of the border. On Sunday, December 4, the Dallas-based carrier launched three new routes from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), adding service to Cancun (CUN), San Jose del Cabo (SJD), and Puerto Vallarta (PVR).
The Cancun and San Jose del Cabo flights will operate twice daily, while the Puerto Vallarta flight will operate once daily.
The new service continues Southwest’s international expansion and marks major international growth in Los Angeles by Southwest. The three new routes and five new daily flights join the carrier’s existing daily service from Los Angeles to Liberia, Costa Rica (LIR), which debuted last April.
Cancun, San Jose del Cabo, and Puerto Vallarta Service Takes Off from Los Angeles
Southwest kicked off its historic new Mexican service in style.
The airline launched three inaugural flights on Sunday, with San Jose del Cabo being the first to depart, followed by Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. Southwest warmly treated passengers to a Mexican sweet bread breakfast at the gate before each inaugural.
Paul Cullen, Southwest’s Vice President of Corporate Planning and FP&A and Executive Sponsor of Los Angeles, was on hand to greet passengers for the first 8:15 am departure to San Jose del Cabo. Taking the microphone at the gate, he welcomed customers to the flight, saying that this is a “very exciting day for Southwest.”
At Airways, we sat down with Cullen after the first flight departed to speak about what the new service means for Southwest Airlines. Steven Swan, Director of International Business Management, and Scott Laird, a Business Consultant in Business Development, were also present to answer questions.
Cullen trumpeted the new service as a testament to Southwest’s mission of “connecting people to what’s most important in their lives.” He said that, while Mexico was difficult to access previously, the airline “jumped” at the opportunity to add new service as a result of the new bilateral between the two countries.
Launching the new service was “not a quick feat,” according to Cullen. However, as soon as the bilateral was announced, the carrier already had plans in place to begin service in the most expedient manner possible.
Of the carrier’s approximately four-percent future annual growth, Cullen said that Southwest’s growth is “disproportionately pushed toward Mexico,” underscoring the importance of Mexico for the airline.
Adding new international service did pose some challenges at the facility level for the Los Angeles station. With the five new daily flights, Southwest operates 131 daily peak departures from LAX, translating into an average daily gate utilization of almost thirteen departures per gate, according to Station Manager Toni Wilson. This places LAX as the station with the highest gate utilization in Southwest’s network.
However, Wilson believes that her team is prepared to handle an expanded international operation. She cited the fact that Southwest began flying internationally from the airport back in April as a factor, giving most of her agents some familiarity with flights abroad. “It was nice to start with just one flight a day,” said Wilson, particularly for a carrier that, even on a corporate level, is still a relatively new player in the international market.
The new flights will also operate out of Terminal 2, where the Liberia flights already operate. This is separate from its main operation in Terminal 1, but a place with which her agents already have substantial familiarity.
Steven Swan, Southwest’s Director of International Business, said that the early returns are “encouraging.” In the interview, Swan stated that the markets are preforming well in their early stages, “booking up higher than expectations.”
Although Southwest is not yet at the point at which it is considering adding more capacity, it is open to doing so should customer response continue to remains strong over the next several months.
On Board Southwest’s Inaugural Puerto Vallarta Flight
Later in the day, Airways also joined Southwest Airlines on board the inaugural Puerto Vallarta flight. As customers enplaned, the captain came over the PA system, welcoming customers on board the historic new service: “Buenos dias, good afternoon, and welcome aboard our inaugural flight down to Puerto Vallarta,” he said.
The flight attendant followed suit shortly thereafter: “Congratulations, you are joining us for our inaugural flight to Puerto Vallarta,” which incited a round of clapping from the cabin.
Once all passengers had taken their seats, the crew documented the maiden voyage by snapping a quick pre-departure photo. Customers held up mini Mexican flags that had been distributed during the boarding process – a feature that has become characteristic of Southwest international inaugurals.
A scheduled 12:40 departure, the doors for WN 110 officially closed at 12:35. The flight pushed from the gate exactly on-time for its maiden voyage. “Welcome aboard and welcome to the beginning of your vacation,” said the flight attendant as the plane taxied toward the runway.
And for the first time of many to come, Flight 110 lifted from the runway, climbing out over the water.
In-flight service was pretty routine, with flight attendants commencing the beverage and snack service shortly after takeoff. After the aircraft hit the ground in Puerto Vallarta, it was greeted with a traditional water cannon salute to celebrate its arrival.
However, more celebrations awaited passengers after deplaning. The agent who opened the door of the aircraft greeted passengers cheerfully over the PA: “Are you ready to go to the beach and drink your tequila, passengers?” he yelled. Little did those aboard know that drinks awaited them right outside of the jet way.
As passengers stepped out, there were not only cocktails being served, but also a live mariachi band playing the local sounds of Puerto Vallarta. Undoubtedly, the inaugural experience on WN 110 was something that those aboard will never forget.
Los Angeles Becomes an International Gateway, Strengthens Southwest’s California Franchise
The three new routes significantly expand Southwest’s international footprint from Los Angeles. Furthermore, they signal Los Angeles coming into focus as an international gateway for the airline.
Los Angeles joins other focus cities within Southwest’s route network as a key point through which to flow international traffic. The carrier launched major additions to its international network through Houston-Hobby (HOU) in October 2015, unveiling its new international concourse at the facility. Baltimore-Washington (BWI), Chicago-Midway (MDW), Denver (DEN), and Fort Lauderdale (FLL), among others, have also been identified as important international gateways, supporting flights to multiple international destinations.
In addition to connecting customers across the domestic network to destinations abroad, the new flights also offer Southern Californians a non-stop option to Mexico’s most popular destinations. This is one of the key goals of the new service – it is built around serving the pre-existing demands of Californians.
“We’ve heard Californians loud and clear that Mexico is what’s important to them,” said Business Consultant Scott Laird. “This isn’t so much a Los Angeles story as a California story.”
Southwest’s new Mexican routes play perfectly for its home crowd in California, and underscore the importance of the Golden State for Southwest. “Customers in the LA Basin area are spoiled for choice,” said Laird. “If a customer wants a non-stop, they can find it on other carriers.”
Over the years, Southwest has built up its network within California to become the largest intra-state carrier. The airline offers approximately six times more flights within California than the next largest carrier, according to company spokesman Brad Hawkins. Southwest’s relative strength within California has led it to focus on maintaining what it calls the California franchise – particularly in the face of competitive incursions by some of its rivals.
It’s no secret that Southwest is facing increasing pressures in the hotly competitive Los Angeles region. In particular, Alaska Airlines has aggressively grown service from several destinations within California in recent times. Alaska also competes with Southwest on the new non-stop flights between Los Angeles and Liberia, Puerto Vallarta, and San Jose del Cabo.
With many of the carrier’s primary competitors offering varying degrees of non-stop service to Mexico, this was simply not something Southwest could ignore to remain competitive – and particularly if it wants to retain the title of California’s airline.
The new routes are a big investment in patching the international hole, and go a long way in making sure that the airline continues to remain attractive for California customers traveling either domestically or internationally.
In the face of competitive challenges, Laird said that Southwest continues to lean on the value proposition of its Transfarency campaign: “what you see on us is what you get. Our customers can depend on us.”
“Customers are definitely voting with their feet,” he said. And now, customers have the option of voting with their feet all the way down to Mexico.
As Southwest Airlines launched its three new international routes from Los Angeles, the message was clear: “Viva Mexico!” Southwest’s customers are now free to move about the country – and beyond the country.