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Volaris and Southwest Start Their “Almost A Codeshare But Not Quite” Partnership

On November 10, 2008, Southwest and a little known Mexican airline named Volaris announced that they would be joining up “to build a codeshare partnership.” It was said that details would be announced in early 2010. Well here we are in late 2010, two years after the first announcement, and the two airlines finally gave us details at Southwest’s Media Day last week. But it’s not a codeshare. It’s, uh, sort of a hybrid that’s the best the airlines can do right now.

In the last couple years, Volaris has grown up rapidly. The low cost carrier, based near Mexico City, is now the second largest airline in Mexico with 20 Southwest and Volaris Exchange Alcoholpercent of the market in the country. It has been profitable and has some of the most impressive guarantees you’ll ever see. If your flight is more than 30 minutes late, you get a refund. Same thing if the airline loses your bag.

I’ve written about Volaris before and met with Holger Blankenstein, the Chief Commercial Officer awhile back. He was in Dallas this week along with CEO Enrique Beltranena (along with a very nice bottle of tequila for Southwest CEO Gary Kelly) to announce the first step in this partnership with Southwest. So what is this thing? It’s being called International Connect.

Starting on November 12, you can go to Southwest.com and book a flight to Mexico begining December 1 from a handful of West Coast cities.

That will slowly expand to add more cities over time, but the focus is west of Denver right now because Volaris’s US destinations (and the partnership’s connecting points) are Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles. In Mexico, the initial cities are Toluca (near Mexico City), Cancun, Guadalajara, Zacatecas, and Morelia with more to come later.

What you’ll see on Southwest.com will look like a regular fare display and you’ll think you’re buying a single ticket connecting on the two airlines but you’re not. What’s actually happening is that it is just combining the Southwest fare with the Volaris fare and showing it as one. When you buy a ticket, you’re actually buying two separate tickets between the two airlines. You will get a Southwest confirmation number and a Volaris confirmation number and you’ll need to check in separately for each.

So what’s the benefit? Well Southwest will now be able to check your bag all the way through to Mexico and Volaris can do the same on the return (though you have to collect your bag to go through customs and immigration anyway coming back north). Since each airline knows that you’ll be traveling on the other, the airlines can take care of you if there’s a delay. I spoke with Robby Byam, the Director of Parternships and he said that if a customer is late coming in on Volaris, Southwest will rebook that person on the next available flight and will send confirmation via email or text and meet the airplane with info. That is a big benefit. Then again, if a Volaris customer is late, they’ll be pretty happy that the flight ended up being free for them.

The Southwest guys kept floating the mantra that this is a simpler way to do things and has advantages over codeshare. The one example?

It’s more transparent – you know what airline you’re flying and not trying to figure out who is operating your codeshare flight. While I agree with that, there are a lot of other drawbacks here.

To me, this seems simple for the airline for sure, but it’s more complex for the customer. I agree about transparency and that would be just fine with me if they didn’t do a full codeshare, but I would want to see a single ticket where I only had to check in once. Whether I’m on Volaris flight 123 or Southwest flgiht 9123 (operated by Volaris), that’s not a concerne and in fact, the former might be better anyway.

But because of the limitations of Southwest’s ancient reservation system, this is the closest the airlines can come right now. So we’ll just have to take what we can get. It opens up the ability for Southwest to get its customers to Mexico more easily and in a few months, Volaris will be able to do the same for its customers via its website. That’s good.

At the end of the year, Southwest and Volaris will evaluate the partnership and decide how to expand further. Volaris will certainly be looking to see which cities send the most traffic down and that can help the airline pick its next destinations in the US. Once Volaris has gateways open in other parts of the country, it makes options with Southwest easier for people east of the Rockies.

So, is this everything I would have wanted to see here? No, but I’m just glad to see something finally happening. Being hamstrung with Southwest’s reservation system means you have to start with less than what’s ideal. I just wish Southwest could get things moving on the technology front more quickly.

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