After 43 Years, Southwest Finally Starts Flying Internationally

After forty-three years and twelve days, Southwest finally began flying their own planes internationally on July 1st. The airline kicked off service from Baltimore, Atlanta, and Orlando to Aruba, Montego Bay, Jamaica and Nassau, Bahamas.

This expansion of Southwest's route map comes less than a week after company founder Rollin King passed away. It was King's idea in 1967, to start a small intrastate airline, flying between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, Texas. At the time, he and co-founder / lawyer Herb Kelleher never imagined their airline would grow to over 600 planes, carrying more domestic passengers than anybody else, let alone fly internationally. Industry regulation at that point would have prevented them from doing so, even if they had wanted to.

After 43 Years, Southwest Finally Starts Flying Internationally

In reality, Southwest has been flying internationally for a few years, using AirTran's planes and flight crews - the result of acquiring AirTran in a merger that was finalized on May 2, 2011. Later this summer, other destinations will be folded in, including Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico City, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Flights will also be added from Austin, Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, San Antonio and Santa Ana. That adds up to 7 international destinations served from 9 U.S. cities by November 2nd of this year. As the merger comes to a close, AirTran's last flight will be December 28th of this year, from Atlanta to Tampa, retracing it's first flight as ValuJet in 1993.

On final approach to Nassau, Bahamas (NAS)

At a celebration in Baltimore before Southwest's first international flights, Teresa Laraba, Southwest's SVP of Customers said:

"Thousands of our Employees have a hand in launching today's flights which begin to bring our convenient and affordable way of air travel to the world, and broaden the horizon for more than 100 million Customers who fly with us every year. We've grown through four decades of profitable service to carry more domestic air travelers every day than any other airline, and this next chapter plants a flag for Bags Fly Free® and No Change Fees in foreign sand."

What will be Southwest's first completely new international destination? CEO Gary Kelly gave some hints to USA Today:

"This opens up all of North America to us. We've pinpointed 50 potential destinations that could be several hundred aircraft worth of growth. It opens up Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and even the northern tier of South America."

After 43 Years, Southwest Finally Starts Flying Internationally

Delta 737 landing at Saint Maarten, by Erik Ogan (CC Commercial License)

As an aviation geek, I hope Southwest adds Saint Maarten to their network at some point. Avgeeks consider it a Mecca, where you can stand on the beach and watch planes make low approaches right over your head.

Travelers either love or loathe Southwest. Their policy of two free checked bags is obviously a big draw, but their unique boarding system will be a bit of a learning curve for the international crowd. Would you consider flying them internationally? Tell us why you would or wouldn't, in the comments below.

Images are by the author, Paul Thompson, unless otherwise noted.