Southwest Airlines is Going International

Jan. 28--Southwest Airlines flew to national prominence by offering a steady diet of domestic flights and peanuts.

But starting July 1, the Dallas-based carrier's familiar red, orange-and-blue jets will begin flying to Jamaica, Aruba and the Bahamas. Tickets for the international destinations went on sale Monday.

St. Louis travelers will still have to board a domestic flight to take advantage of the new international offerings, which for now are limited to departures from Atlanta, Baltimore/Washington and Orlando.

Southwest, the dominant carrier serving St. Louis, has been talking about international service for years. When it acquired AirTran Airways in 2011, that airline's international routes were one of the factors, said Dan Landson, a Southwest spokesman.

"This is a natural progression to complete our integration with AirTran," Landson said.

Southwest has been held back from international offerings by technological limits to its reservations system, which it has been upgrading.

Later this year, Southwest is expected to take over four AirTran destinations in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The carrier plans to add international flights from Houston's William P. Hobby Airport -- where construction has started on a five-gate international facility -- as well as Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and possibly other U.S. cities. No new details are expected before 2015.

AirTran's international flights account for less than 1 percent of the parent company's passenger-carrying capacity, and that won't change with Monday's announcement about some flights switching from AirTran planes to Southwest aircraft. Chief commercial officer Bob Jordan said, however, that international flying is "a big part of our growth strategy" and could someday involve 70 to 80 Southwest aircraft.

Southwest executives said last week that they intend to retire the AirTran brand by the end of this year.

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport spokesman Jeff Lea said Monday that St. Louisans have had to rely mostly on charter flights to reach Mexico and the Caribbean.

The St. Louis airport expects to log a 12 percent increase in international charter flights this year. In addition to Cancun and Huatulco, two new Mexican markets -- Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos -- are now reachable from St. Louis.

Charter flights also are available to Jamaica.

Lambert spokesman Jeff Lea said the airport meets frequently with Southwest to discuss potential domestic markets "that will grow service here at the airport."

Some discussions have touched on international markets, he added, but "there is nothing specific on the horizon as far as news on that front."

Helane Becker, an airline analyst at Cowen and Company in New York, said the significance of Monday's news is that Southwest will break into the international market "with its own metal" and personnel.

Because the U.S. domestic market is saturated, it is a logical extension for Southwest to move cautiously into nearby international markets. She added that Southwest will be aided by AirTran data for historic bookings for the three initial destinations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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