Southwest, which grew to carry more domestic passengers than any U.S. airline, began selling tickets Monday for international flights, the start of a significant shift for the low-cost domestic carrier.
Starting July 1, travelers will for the first time be able to fly Southwest to Aruba, Jamaica and the Bahamas, setting up stiff competition with larger carriers that serve those areas now, analysts say.
The announcement, complete with steel drums playing at a news conference at Southwest's Dallas headquarters, was hailed as historic by Southwest officials who noted that the 43-year-old carrier was created to focus on domestic service.
"To make that shift in strategy has taken a huge effort,'' said Gary Kelly, Southwest's president and CEO. But, he added, as a leading domestic carrier, it was time "that we think about stepping out.''
Southwest will have daily, non-stop flights between Atlanta and Aruba and Montego Bay in Jamaica, as well as between Baltimore and Aruba, and Nassau in the Bahamas. There will be twice a day flights between Baltimore and Montego Bay, and on Saturdays only between Orlando and Aruba and Montego Bay.
A key reason Southwest bought its one-time rival, AirTran, in 2011 was to help it push into international markets. The three Caribbean destinations announced Monday mark the beginning of Southwest integrating AirTran's overseas routes.
"It's tangible proof of the progress of the merger,'' said Henry Harteveldt, aviation expert at Hudson Crossing.
Come July, AirTran will continue to fly internationally, operating flights between Chicago's Midway Airport and Montego Bay, Jamaica, for instance. But by the end of the year all international service by AirTran will shift over to Southwest.
International travel is outpacing domestic when it comes to growth, spurring U.S. carriers to increasingly focus overseas to boost profits. And Southwest sees the low fares that have helped make it successful in the U.S. having similar appeal for travelers flying abroad.
"Most of these routes are overfared,'' Bob Jordan, Southwest's executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said during the news conference. "It's a very substantial opportunity for Southwest Airlines. ... It's a big, big component of our growth strategy.''
Southwest began building its first international terminal, at Houston's William P. Hobby Airport, in September.
While Southwest still won't compete on a global level with its larger network peers, Harteveldt said Southwest may give carriers like Delta and JetBlue a run for their money with its new flights to the Caribbean.
"Obviously they offer fares that people find attractive and affordable,'' he said. "And Southwest backs it up with amenities like free checked baggage. ... Southwest has a loyal base of customers and no doubt will be a very, very strong competitor in this region.''
Harteveldt said he's also curious to see where else Southwest will spread its wings, beyond the overseas destinations already served by AirTran.
"I'm interested to see where in a year or so we start to see Southwest ... add new flights to new destinations that were not previously operated by AirTran,'' he said. Harteveldt added that there might be opportunities for new flights from Phoenix to Mexico, for instance, or between Houston and parts of South America.
Southwest officials said Monday that the focus this year will be on completing its integration of planes, crews and flights with AirTran. But it may launch service to additional overseas destinations in 2015.