MONTEGO BAY — It’s official: Southwest Airlines has left the country. The airline that specialized in domestic-only flying finally expanded to international travel on Monday, inaugurating a number of routes to a handful of destinations.
Forty-three years ago, Southwest Airlines started a modest operation between three cities in Texas. Over the years it has grown so much that the carrier now flies more domestic passengers in the United States than any of its rivals.
Since Gary Kelly, Southwest’s CEO, took over ten years ago, there has been a lot of change at Southwest. It began to ditch its mantra of second tier airports for the big, congested fields like LaGuardia, revamped its frequent-flier program, began to focus on business travelers, introduced WiFi and TV on its flights, welcome the Boeing 737-800 to the fleet, and placed a large aircraft order for the new 737MAX.
Perhaps most importantly for today’s news, Southwest Airlines acquired AirTran Airways in 2011. At the time, the airline maintained a large presence in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Orlando, flying from each to seven international destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico. The acquisition positioned Southwest to expand beyond the border by simply assuming AirTran’s routes.
Over the last few years, Southwest has been slowly taking over those AirTran flights a few routes at a time. However, Southwest did not consume any of the carrier’s international operations until today. Despite the lengthy wait, it wanted to make sure that it was done right, and a lot of work had to be done.
John Kirby, Southwest’s International Business Manager in Network Planning, was tasked to lead the Southwest team launching international flights. Being a key player in AirTran’s international development several years back, Kirby was ready for the task, though he adds it was a team effort.
Kirby elaborated on what it takes to launch flights to a new international destination: “In the beginning you need to see if you can operate the flight and make sure it makes sense. If it passes this test, you then need to make sure you have the right type of plane to operate the route, check with flight operations…and see what government regulations there are. Meanwhile, you look to see how big the market is and which gateways it would make sense to fly to.
Additionally, you must take a look at the costs and visit the station to make sure it is capable to handle your operations. If it is, then you’ll announce it about seven to nine months in advance, and as the inaugural flight date approaches, you hire staff, choose your vendors, and prepare the terminal for your arrival.”
Sure enough, seven months ago the carrier announced its first international destinations, or at least the ones it would assume from AirTran.
Fast forward to earlier this morning, where a large gathering was held in Baltimore to the tune of steel drums and beach balls flying through the air as Southwest embarks on a new and an important chapter in its history.
Upon arriving at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, check-in was already in full swing. A decent amount of positions at Southwest’s ticket counters have now been zoned off for international travel, where agents were proactively making sure customers had no issues checking-in.
Just a bit past security, at gates A1-A3, Southwest employees were already getting ready for the first international flights.
Speaking at a pre-departure celebration, Teresa Laraba, Southwest’s Senior Vice President Customers says “this has been my baby, and I am glad to see this happening. Plus, I’m looking forward to going to Aruba since I bumped Gary Kelly off. (Many laugh) Thousands of our employees have a hand in launching today’s first flights which begin to bring our convenient and affordable way of air travel to the world, and broaden the horizon for more than 100 million customers who fly with us every year.
We’ve grown through four decades of profitable service to carry more US air travelers every day than any other airline and this next chapter plants a flag for bags fly free and no change fees in foreign sand.”
It took two years to get to this point as a lot of technical upgrades and training was needed in order for Southwest to launch international flights.
“We are extremely pleased that our next generation technology has enabled Southwest to achieve its goal of international flying. Amadeus is committed to delivering the solutions and services that help our customers connect, serve, and manage the evolving needs of the 21st Century traveler.
We are very proud to be a partner of Southwest in achieving this significant milestone today and look forward to continuing to shape the future of travel together,” said Julia Sattel, Senior Vice President, Airline IT, Amadeus.
After the opening remarks, it was time to board for Montego Bay, Jamaica. Although Southwest flight 906 to Jamaica was really Southwest’s second international flight, we would make history by being the first Southwest Airlines flight to land in a foreign country. Plus, every passenger was greeted with a snorkel mask and a beach ball on their seat.
After boarding was complete, Southwest’s Chief Marketing Officer, Kevin Krone announced that the first drink was on Southwest, only fueling the palpable excitement on board.
After a quick take off roll, the airplane flew south along the east coast as everybody settled in for the three hour flight. Overall, the flight was pretty uneventful. It was the usual Southwest service. We had to navigate around Tropical Storm Arthur, it didn’t cause too many issues.
Prior to landing, all of the passenger were asked to hold up their masks for a cutesy group photo, and for the first time ever on a Southwest flight, an announcement about immigration was made and forms were handed out.
Once on the ground in Jamaica, passengers were greeted with nice views of the water and a ceremonial water cannon salute, plus music and a small gift from the Jamaica Tourist Board after disembarking. A few remarks were made inside the terminal, and it was time for the aircraft to travel back to Baltimore while we headed to a lunch with the Jamaica Tourist Board.
Although the formal celebration was held in Baltimore, Southwest also launched international flights today from Atlanta and Orlando to Aruba, The Bahamas, and Jamaica, but this is just the beginning.
Starting August 10th, the Dallas-based airline will begin operating daily service from Cancun, Mexico to Atlanta and Baltimore BWI, along with Saturday service to Milwaukee. San Jose del Cabo will receive daily service from Santa Ana, while Nassau, Bahamas will see Saturday only service to Atlanta.
The carrier will further expand international flights in October, operating daily service from Cancun to Denver starting on the 7th, and San Jose del Cabo to Denver on the 11th.
All of the routes are currently serviced by merger partner AirTran. CEO Kelley has said in the past that he doesn’t anticipate new non-AirTran international routes until 2015 at the earliest.
The executive team has worked very hard at explaining what it means to go international, and for many, this is an exciting time. Krone, a 22 year employee at Southwest, says “I’ve seen a lot of things happen at Southwest, but this certainly ranks at the top of my history at Southwest in terms of big milestones for the company. I’m very proud to be a part.”
Kirby explains that “I think [flying international] will really enhance our domestic offering. If you think about it, Southwest is a very strong brand with a great story, especially for being profitable for 41 consecutive profitable quarters. We know that we don’t meet all of our customer’s needs.
Some customers do a lot of international business or want a frequent flier program that may take them to Cancun or Jamaica for example which make us unattractive as compared to the airlines that offer this. I look at us going international as an enhancement for our customers.”
Customers have also been very enthusiastic with the airline now going international, and they can expect more growth.
It plans to grow in Houston when its international terminal is completed in 2015, and later this year, Southwest will break ground on a new international terminal in Fort Lauderdale which is scheduled to open in 2017. Plus, the airline will continue expanding in Washington DC and Dallas Love Field as the Wright Amendment ends in October.