By TERRY MAXON
Southwest Airlines Co., which first began flying beyond U.S. borders July 1, starts service to a new country Saturday and launches its first international service from Houston Hobby Airport.
Those flights are the first of a number of international routes that the Dallas-based carrier plans to launch before the end of 2015, with a focus on Hobby.
Southwest will offer a daily round trip between Baltimore and San Jose, Costa Rica, its first flights to that Central American country. It also begins Saturday-only flights between Houston and Aruba.
Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins noted that the new routes represent several firsts for Southwest.
Not only does Saturday mark Southwest’s first service to Costa Rica, but San Jose is the first international city to be served by Southwest that had not been part of the AirTran Airways Inc. network, Hawkins said.
And the Houston-Aruba flight is not only Southwest’s first international service out of Houston but also the longest flight Southwest has ever operated out of a Texas city, he said.
“All indications are that it’s going to be very successful because of the load factors,” Hawkins said of the Houston-Aruba service.
The other international routes from Houston will await the completion of a five-gate concourse for international flights now under construction. The $156 million project is scheduled to be finished in time for Southwest to launch additional international flights in October.
But the Aruba service won’t have to wait for the new Hobby facilities.
Hobby currently lacks the necessary U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities to process arriving passengers. However, passengers on the new flight will go through “pre-clearance” processing at Queen Beatrix International Airport in Oranjestad, Aruba, to meet federal requirements.
Airport spokesman Bill Begley told The Associated Press that Hobby hasn’t offered international service since 1969, when Houston Intercontinental Airport opened and all airlines at Hobby moved to the larger airport. Before it was renamed for former Gov. William P. Hobby in 1967, the former Houston International Gateway hosted several international flights.
“This is an exciting first step in achieving our goal of establishing regional international air service at Hobby Airport,” Houston aviation director Mario C. Diaz said in a statement.
“We are making dramatic progress on the new international concourse building and have a definitive route map now available from the team at Southwest Airlines. The importance of strong connectivity with Latin America and the Caribbean cannot be overstated in Houston and these flights will undoubtedly strengthen those business and cultural ties,” he said.
Hobby is expected to be a primary international gateway for Southwest’s North Texas customers. While a change in federal law now allows nonstop flights from Dallas Love Field to any city in the United States, the law still bars any international flights from the Dallas airport.
Southwest last year took over the international network operated by AirTran, which it acquired in May 2011. Southwest currently flies to Aruba; Nassau, the Bahamas; Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic; Montego Bay, Jamaica; and Cancun, Mexico City and Cabo San Lucas. It plans to start service to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on June 7.
Southwest announced late last year that it wanted to begin Houston flights to Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Belize City, Belize.
But it has been stymied, at least temporarily, as it awaits some of the needed approvals.
The U.S. Department of Transportation granted Southwest’s request to operate Houston flights to Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, as well as the Belize and Costa Rica flights. But DOT officials denied permission to let it fly from Houston to Mexico City and Cabo San Lucas.
The U.S.-Mexico aviation treaty limits the number of carriers on any route, and other U.S. carriers already hold all the rights available on the Mexico City and Cabo San Lucas routes.
In its application, Southwest argued that United Airlines Inc. in effect held two of the carrier designations to Mexico City and Cabo San Lucas because SkyWest Airlines Inc. was flying as a regional partner of United. Southwest asked the DOT to take away one of the designations and give it to Southwest.
But in January, DOT turned down the request at that time.
Southwest and United had previously battled over the international facility at Hobby. United, which has a large connecting hub at Houston’s larger airport, now called George Bush Intercontinental Airport, had unsuccessfully urged city leaders to reject Southwest’s proposal.