Southwest Starts Flights To the Bahamas, Aruba, Jamaica

July 02--For the first time in its 43-year history, Southwest Airlines has added international flights, launching service this week to the Bahamas, Aruba and Jamaica.

Orlando International Airport is part of the inaugural batch of flights, with Southwest flying from OIA to Aruba and Montego Bay, Jamaica.

For the near future, the airline will have one daily flight to Jamaica from Orlando. The first of those flights departed just after 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The carrier's first-ever international flight left from Baltimore/Washington International's Thurgood Marshall Airport. In keeping with the airline's playful image, employees celebrated the flight by handing out beach balls, snorkels and diving masks.

Service from Orlando to Aruba, for the time being, will be one flight a week -- on Saturday. In August, said Southwest spokeswoman Emily Samuels, the carrier will add daily flights to the island.

"There's a lot of potential," said Samuels, "and we're excited about the possibility of adding more."

The expansion beyond U.S. borders is a byproduct of Southwest's 2011 acquisition of AirTran Airways. At the time, AirTran was the third-busiest carrier at IOA.

Southwest acquired the company for $1 billion in cash and stock. Since the acquisition, it has been absorbing AirTran's operations and routes, repainting its planes and converting airport facilities.

Until this week, however, it had not picked up AirTran's international routes.

As Southwest moves into the international destinations, AirTran will pull out. On Dec. 28, AirTran will operate its last flight, from Atlanta to Tampa, as it completes its integration into Southwest.

Last week, Southwest Vice President Teresa Laraba said the move into international travel was "huge" for the company.

"Obviously, we've been waiting for 43 years to get to this point," she said. "It's a pretty big deal. It's such an opportunity for us to plant our name and flag in international waters, and we've never done it."

Compared with major competitors that have more than 40 percent of their capacity on international routes, Southwest will be a small player. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly estimates that international flying represents only about 1 percent of AirTran and Southwest capacity in 2014.

Southwest is the busiest carrier at Orlando International Airport, accounting for more than 27 percent of all passengers -- about 7 million -- between April 2013 and March 2014, according to federal statistics and airport officials.

Every day, it offers 158 nonstop flights from Orlando to 41 cities. That makes OIA Southwest's 10th-busiest airport in terms of non-stop departures.

Later this summer, Southwest will add international destinations, focusing heavily on Central America. It will fly to Cancun and Los Cabos, Mexico, beginning in August, and to Mexico City and the Dominican Republican starting in November. Those flights, however, won't depart from Orlando.

On Tuesday, Southwest's website showed that one-way, nonstop fares for Orlando to Aruba were running from $206 to $400. Non-stop, one way fares from Orlando to Montego Bay, Jamaica, were $275 to $460.

Southwest, however, is offering up to $200 off select travel packages booked through July 14 for travel between Friday and Jan. 4, 2015.

jstratton@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5379. Information from the Dallas Morning News was used in this report.

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