A More Worldly Southwest Flies Abroad for the First Time

Purple 737s took flight over the Caribbean on Tuesday as Southwest Airlines made its first international trip, more than four decades after its first short hop within Texas.

Flight 1804 from Baltimore to Aruba was the first non-AirTran flight Southwest has operated internationally and marks an integration milestone. The airline is still absorbing AirTran, which it acquired three years ago, and AirTran has until now operated all of Southwest’s international service.

And yes, Southwest’s first international flight was on time.

For international service, Southwest sees its non-hub network as a competitive advantage over its legacy rivals, which concentrate overseas-bound traffic at their hubs. That means new service to Cancun from such places as Austin, Tex., and Milwaukee and to Los Cabos. Mexico, from Denver and Orange County, Calif. “Unlike our legacy competition—where they have three or four focal points in the United States—we’ve got 30,” Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly told USA Today. “So we’ll have international flights from an array of markets and more than what we’re serving from today.”

Southwest also planned to send flights to Jamaica and the Bahamas on Tuesday. Over time, the airline will look to expand to Central America, Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, and possibly the northern edges of South America, which lie within range of the company’s Boeing 737s.

Rivals such as Spirit and JetBlue have also initiated service to South America, lured by the prospect of business travelers and generally higher fares. Southwest has begun constructing an international terminal at Houston’s Hobby Airport and will begin work this fall on a similar project in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It plans to convert all AirTran service to the Southwest brand by yearend.

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