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Southwest builds its own kind of international network

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Southwest Airlines has always been its own airline—while many carriers around the world have copied aspects of Southwest’s business model, the carrier remains unique. So it goes with the airline’s budding international operations.

Southwest launched international service in 2014 with a small number of routes inherited from AirTran Airways. It has since developed a larger Caribbean/Mexico-focused international network that includes 15 destinations in 10 countries. Its three largest international destinations are Cancun (Mexico), San José del Cabo (Mexico) and Montego Bay (Jamaica).

But the growing network is taking a different form than those of the legacy US international airlines. Traditionally, US airlines funnel international passengers into a handful of US airports from which beyond-US flights are operated. Delta Air Lines, for example, largely concentrates international flights at six US airports: Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York JFK and Seattle. If you live outside those areas, flying international on Delta usually means making a domestic connection first.

Southwest, on the other hand, is starting to develop a robust network of US gateways. By July, it will operate 65 international routes from 23 US gateways.

“As a point-to-point carrier, you don’t serve all of these international points from one or two gateways,” Southwest EVP and chief revenue officer Andrew Watterson explained this week during an appearance at the International Aviation Club in Washington DC. “We’ve zoomed up to 23 gateways and I expect that to keep growing.”

The Southwest concept appears to be: Bring the international service to the passenger. This adds another selling point beyond the no fees, low fares, on-time service Southwest is already selling: Start your vacation off with a nonstop flight.

For example, Southwest operates nonstop Saturday flights from St. Louis and Indianapolis to Cancun. This means flight time of about 3 hr. Most journeys from St. Louis or Indianapolis to Cancun aboard legacy airlines take about 6 hr. or more and include a connection (with one leg potentially including a regional jet flight). Cutting out three hours of travel and eliminating a connection is a real selling point.

Some caveats: It is the early days of Southwest’s international operations and the available options are still somewhat limited. A lot of the nonstop options are just once weekly (although, for vacationers, this lack of frequency may not be a big deal). And Southwest will do plenty of funneling itself, especially to airports like Houston Hobby, where it has built its own international terminal.

But as time goes on, expect more and more nonstop international options on Southwest, and a different kind of international network compared to rivals like Delta, American Airlines, United Airlines and focus-city oriented JetBlue Airways.

Aaron Karp/Aviation Daily aaron.karp@informa.com

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