Southwest Airlines Co., which now carries more domestic passengers than any other carrier, announced Monday that it will make its first foray into international service on July 1.
The airline will begin with nonstop flights into Nassau, Bahamas; Montego Bay, Jamaica; and Aruba. By the end of 2014, it will also begin service to three Mexican destinations, Mexico City, Cancun and Cabo San Lucas, and to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
But travelers out of Dallas Love Field need not get excited about flying nonstop to any international destinations. They’ll have to make at least one stop in the United States before they reach a non-U.S. airport out of Dallas.
That’s because a change in the Wright amendment in 2006 prohibited nonstop international service from Love Field. That ban stays in place, even after the ban on flying nonstop to any U.S. destination expires Oct. 13.
Southwest chairman and chief executive Gary Kelly drew an analogy between Southwest’s decision to begin its international flights in three cities and Southwest’s 1971 launch of service to three cities in Texas.
Southwest is taking over the seven international destinations from AirTran Airways Inc., the subsidiary it acquired in May 2011.
Kelly said 2014 will be a very big year for the Dallas-based carrier as it begins international service, finishes absorbing AirTran and expands its service from Love Field after the Wright amendment expires.
“In most years, any one of these things would be a big deal. But to have a trifecta here in 2014 is pretty incredible,” he said.
Kelly said that observers shouldn’t expect Southwest to expand beyond the seven AirTran cities in 2014.
“Our focus for 2014 will be to complete the AirTran integration and move the AirTran flights into Southwest Airlines,” Kelly said at a morning news conference.
He said 2015 “ would be a logical time to seriously consider expanding our international flying. Some of these decisions have not been made yet, but it’s likely that we will not add any new international flying in 2014.”
While 2014 will be spent absorbing AirTran’s network, the carrier should be ready to add more cities in 2015. In particular, it will finish building a five-gate international terminal at Houston Hobby Airport toward the end of 2015.
“That will add a significant launch pad for new international service,” said Bob Jordan, Southwest executive vice president and chief commercial officer. “I can’t tell you any details today, but I can tell you we’re looking at a pretty robust number of new cities, new markets.”
He suggested that one could look at the outer limit of where Southwest’s Boeing 737s can fly and look at any city inside that radius.
According to Boeing, a 737-800 has a range of close to 3,600 miles. Cities in Venezuela, Colombia and Central America would be well within that range from Southwest’s airports along the southern tier of the United States.
“Obviously, it depends on the number of passengers, the competition, those kinds of things,” Jordan said. “But I think the opportunities for Southwest Airlines over the next two to three years are very substantial.”
He said he could see international flying using 70 to 80 airplanes in the not too distant future. “It’s a big, big component of our growth strategy,” he said.
Kelly suggested that Southwest could have “several hundred airplanes’ worth of flying just in North America connecting into the Southwest domestic system.”
Kelly downplayed any possibility that Southwest would want to buy bigger airplanes to handle longer international trips.
“I think it would be a mistake for us to get distracted and look at larger airplanes,” he said. “On down the line, that’s something we might be interested in. But there’s no effort underway at this point.”