Spirit Goes International From Houston, Steals Southwest’s Thunder

Schedule Changes, Spirit

The ramp-up to Southwest flying internationally from Houston has been a long one with political drama and major construction. But as Southwest gets closer, Spirit has decided to get a head start. It’s launching a slew of international service in May which is bound to give a little heartburn to both Southwest and United. But Spirit is smart for doing this, and the timing is right.

Spirit Houston International

The reason for all the drama with Southwest is simply due to airport choice. While most airlines fly from Houston Intercontinental on the north side of town, Southwest flies exclusively from Houston Hobby on the south side. Intercontinental is, of course, a major international hub but Hobby wasn’t international at all.

When Southwest decided to fly internationally, it picked Houston as an obvious entry point, but it had no interest in flying from Intercontinental. Instead, it pushed hard to get Hobby turned into an international airport, and it offered to pay most of the costs involved. Pretty much everyone was onboard with this plan except for the biggest tenant at Intercontinental, United.

United claimed that having two international airports in Houston would ruin the airline’s hub operation, and it would be forced to cut flights. United paid consultants to write reports talking up the doom and gloom scenarios. The airline even went so far as to blame a cut in Houston flying on this new facility even though it was clearly going to happen anyway.

Fortunately, the powers that be saw through all these shenanigans and let Southwest build its facility. The people of Houston got all starry-eyed, dreaming of cheap flights to vacation destinations. The facility won’t be done until late next year at best, so Southwest’s big plans have been mostly on hold. (There is a weekly flight starting to Aruba in March, but that’s because Aruba, like Canada, has US customs and immigration pre-clearance so a facility isn’t required in Houston.)

As the residents of Houston eagerly await new international service, Spirit saw opportunity. It already serves Intercontinental with a surprisingly large number of flights to Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Ft Lauderdale, Kansas City, Vegas, LA, New Orleans, Orlando, and San Diego. But now it’s launching 10 new routes. Three are domestic: Baltimore, Oakland, and Tampa. But the other 7 will be Spirit’s first international routes from Houston. Service starts in May.

  • Cancun (Mexico) – Daily
  • Cabo (Mexico) – 4x weekly
  • Managua (Nicaragua) – 3x weekly
  • San Jose (Costa Rica) – 4x weekly
  • San Pedro Sula (Honduras) – 3x weekly
  • San Salvador (El Salvador) – 4x weekly
  • Toluca (Mexico) – 3x weekly

While there’s just about no chance Southwest goes into a place like Managua when it launches international service, it’s safe to bet that Cancun and Cabo would be at the top of the list.

By going into the market now, Spirit capitalizes on all the buzz about international flying in the Houston area. It also positions itself to take full advantage of the media frenzy that will accompany Southwest’s service. After all, with lower costs and an unbundled structure, Spirit can afford to keep fares lower than anyone else in the market.

Any time Southwest makes an announcement, Spirit can say “yeah, we already fly there and we’re cheaper.” While Hobby and Intercontinental are on opposite sides of town, when it comes to price-sensitive leisure travelers, they’ll go wherever the flights are.

As for United, well, it’s already cried wolf about Southwest ruining the Houston hub. Will Spirit not make things even worse? Houston is a big city with a lot of demand. My guess is that there’s room for everyone. For Spirit, however, this just seemed like a great opportunity to ride in on Southwest’s coattails. Southwest can spend a lot of money promoting its new service, and the local media will be all over it. Now, Spirit will get a mention every time. There’s nothing like free media coverage to make a good opportunity even better.

[Original fur coat image via Shutterstock]

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47 comments on “Spirit Goes International From Houston, Steals Southwest’s Thunder

  1. One thing to keep in mind is that Houston is the 5th largest US metro area by population, behind NYC, Chicago, LA, and DFW, and ahead of places like Atlanta, San Fran / Oakland Bay Area, and DC. With the exception of Atlanta, all of those areas have multiple strong airports serving them.

    I have to believe that some demand for additional direct routes is there, and kudos to Spirit and Southwest for recognizing what will hopefully be good business opportunities for them.

  2. Some thoughts…first, Southwest is already getting squeezed, and that will continue to get worse. They offer basically the same high fares as the legacy carriers, and in many ways, the service of the ULCCs. They have little to offer a high-dollar business traveler. They have no first class, no assigned seating, no chance to earn miles to get things like business class trips to Europe or Hawaii.

    In many ways, Southwest feels like a cattle call. That’s fine…basic transportation is basic transportation. Just get me there. But their fares are in line with the legacy guys, not the likes of Spirit or Allegiant.

    I believe this will be a growing problem for Southwest in the coming years, because as the ULCCs grow, they will take market share more from Southwest than anybody.

    With regard to Houston, keep in mind that there are very large numbers of Central American immigrants in Texas, especially in Houston and Dallas. Look at the locations they picked…Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. Spirit is going after immigrants and transients going back and forth. This will be a growing market over the years, and it’s really something that United won’t match due to costs.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if these are successful if they add a couple of flights from DFW to Central America also.

    1. Except in many situations Southwest is the only provider of extensive nonstop service for many second tier airports and has significant domestic market penetration in many airports that domestically the legacy’s have given up on. With Spirit, unlike say a Ryanair that has expanded the market by hitting tertiary airport and cutting to the bone, they seem to focus almost solely on major cities where they can cut off a portion of business from other airlines. That doesn’t really expand the playing map for them.

      1. Except that’s not the bulk of Southwest’s business. They fly lots of folks between large population centers. Check these routes out…

        Chicago-NYC 14 flights a day
        Dallas-Houston 21 flights a day
        Atlanta-DC/Baltimore 10 flights a day
        Houston-Chicago 7 flights a day
        Chicago-Las Vegas 9 flights a day
        LA area to San Francisco area 75 flights a day

        On all of these routes, they have competition from both the big boys and the ULCCs.

        Increasingly, Southwest is cutting their service to smaller airports and smaller markets. They pulled out of Jackson, Mississippi this year. They used to have 8 or 9 flights per day between Dallas and places like Tulsa, Little Rock, or Lubbock. Now it’s 3 or 4 or 5, and no that’s not all because of the end of the Wright Amendment.

        1. SWA still flies to a lot of medium size markets that have little service from ULCC. The Greenville,SC, Charleston. SC, Birmingham, AL, They also support medium cities like Nashville, Memphis, and Charlotte’s that have minimal service on ULCC.

          How much of the large city traffic out of MDW is connection from smaller cities? Many on SWA have to connect at MDW to reach NYC, DC, or Las Vegas.

          Most of the country does not have access to ULCC.

          1. Not sure how well the Greenville, SC experiment has gone for SWA. SWA started with 7 daily flights here; now, there are only 4 daily flights.

          2. Sean said that Southwest provides service to smaller markets that the big boys have given up on. Generally, that is not true. You mention Greenville…from there, on Southwest you can fly to Baltimore, Chicago, or Houston. That’s it. And that’s a total of four flights a day. Anywhere else, it’s a connection.

            By contrast, Delta has nine flights a day to Atlanta and three more to Detroit, and American has 17 a day to DFW, Charlotte, Philly, and DC. And Allegiant serves GSP too.

            Most of Southwest’s service is to the same cities that the legacy carriers fly to.

            1. Throwing up flight frequencies to major hubs does not indicate anything. In fact we can how diversified Southwest’s base of flights is by drilling into the most recent BTS data. Compare Southwest to the legacies in August (http://www.transtats.bts.gov/carriers.asp?pn=1) and you will see that most of the legacies, understandably, do the vast bulk of their flying from their hubs, in Delta’s case almost 30% comes through ATL. The bases for Southwest are considerably more diversified, and indicates their hybrid point to point/hub operation.

        2. Southwest has reduced the flights and raised the fare’s….the loyal follower’s in these smaller markets Southwest has severed since the early ’70’s are being tossed aside….sad to see, especially ELP and ABQ, the original spring board to the west coast….

  3. Another thing to keep in mind about Spirit’s action is that for some destinations in Mexico the US-Mexico bi-lateral only permits two or three US and two or three Mexican airlines on a particular route. With Spirit filing for these rights and flying them before Southwest does either, it could effectively lock Southwest out of the market for routes where there is are one or two carriers with actively used rights.

    4. Except as provided in subparagraph 5 of this paragraph, either of the Parties shall be entitled to designate two airlines to provide scheduled combination services on any city pair between the two territories that may be served under the Agreement. Such designations shall be notified to the other Party in writing .

    5. Except as provided in sections a and b of this subparagraph, each Party shall be entitled to designate three airlines to provide scheduled combination services between any point or points in the United States and the following points in Mexico: Acapulco, Cancun, Cozumel, Guadalajara, Huatulco, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, Loreto, Manzanilllo, Mazatlan, Merida, Monterrey, Oaxaca, Puerto Vallarta, and San Jose’ del Cabo . Such designations shall be notified to the other Party in writing .

    a. Through October 26, 2007, each Party shall be entitled to designate two airlines to provide scheduled combination services between any point or points in the United States and the following points in Mexico: Guadalajara and Monterrey.
    b. Effective October 27, 2007, each Party shall be entitled to designate three airlines to provide scheduled combination services between any point or points in the United States and the following points in Mexico: Guadalajara and Monterrey .

    1. I wonder if Hobby and Intercontinental might count as two separate points under this, each with their own route allocations?

    2. On most of these routes Spirit would be the second of a possible three. Its shouldn’t stop SWA from serving these markets.

      1. There is also a lot of talk out there now that the bilateral is going to be loosened up significantly. We’ll see if that actually happens.

      2. No, Spirit will often be the third of three, because regional operators count separately, and United and a regional operator hold separate authorities.

    3. do any Mexican or Central American carriers want to serve Hobby, haven’t heard of any….they all go to IAH….would they be allowed into Hobby if they wanted….just curious….

  4. So United cried it would have to cut flights if Hobby was an international airport, golly gee you mean they wouldn’t ff WN started international flights at IAH? And exactly how many flights have they cut in Newark because JFK is their neighbor for international flights?

    UA should know it’s bigger and has a farther reach then Southwest or Spirit and these two airlines aren’t what high end travelers in Houston area will want to fly on. There is a lot of money in the Houston area and those with money and without private jets aren’t going to want to cram themselves into Southwest or Spirit.

  5. I’m not interested in flying Spirit, even if it does eventually start serving an airport within driving distance of me. What I *am* interested in is seeing Southwest finally getting a taste of its own medicine. When I moved to New Mexico around 35 years ago there was more-than-adequate service on multiple airlines out of Albuquerque to all points of the compass. It didn’t take long before Southwest ended up with a near-monopoly on west-coast service from ABQ, and even then with nonstops only to a tiny handful of destinations. Call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t care for having to suffer the cattle-call twice to get where I want to go. And there are NO cost savings on Southwest – in fact, their fares are almost always higher, in my experience. Yet still the corporate hype keeps on flowing about “low fares” — meaning (as low as we’re gonna give you, sucker!) in reality. I’m hoping Southwest gets scared enough to start offering fares that are ACTUALLY lower than the competition. Ever wonder why Southwest forces you to fare-shop on its own website? That way, if you believe their low fare hype you’ll have a harder time comparison shopping and won’t notice the wool that’s being pulled over your eyes!

    1. No, Southwest is no longer a low-fare leader, but I’m willing to bet if you compared everything side-by-side, you’d find that Spirit isn’t much cheaper once you add in all of the nickel-and-dime fees. I can guarantee that most folks heading to Central America or Mexico aren’t just going to be taking a backpack that can fit under the seat. After adding a checked bag and carry-on, that’s an extra, what, $75 right there each way, assuming you remember to pay online?

      1. Spirit do have better fares than any other carrier, even after adding up two bags and reserved seatting. Perhaps not in comparison to the most economical fare 3 months out, but certainly 21 days until departure Spirit beats every other option (at least that is my experience out of ATL or FLL to southamerica, Caribean or central america destinations). If you are willing to have a seat that does not recline, those A321/0s are almost new, and you can save almost 40% of the other carriers fare. Houston is going to enjoy Spririt and United is going to get hurt trying to fill up the economy seats.

    2. it would be nice if Southwest offered low fare’s like they use to…in a lot of Texas markets they have jacked the fare’s up so high it’s ridiculous….a lot of people have said Virgin is silly for adding DAL-AUS, why not ORD,SEA etc…..this is a prime market for Southwest and i am excited to see it….wish Virgin would add some other Texas cities….what do you think would happen if Virgin entered the DAL-HOU market…..

  6. Neither Spirit nor Southwest are airlines I fly if I have a choice. But going beyond their cat-fight, more variety in flights from Hobby will mean much more convenience for many Houston travelers who might grudgingly decide to choose Spirit or Southwest for ease of accessibility alone.

    Intercontinental is a large, modern and seemingly well run airport on the northern edge of the city. However the Houston area is a vast sprawling metropolis. For people who live on the south or west sides of Harris County or in Galveston, the drive to IAH can take longer than the trip itself. New Hobby flights will be attractive to people who just don’t want to deal with the trip to Intercontinental, especially if they have to fight Houston’s soul crushing rush hours.

    But… A possible future problem facing the airlines and Hobby is residential neighborhoods around Hobby. Home owners accustomed to the relatively few flights in and out of Hobby currently might not welcome increasing service there and could eventually fight back.

  7. I am continually amazed at the crap WN takes about not being a business airline, and how their “cattle call” chases the business traveler away – maybe those suggesting such things haven’t taken WN in a while, so that’s understandable. My take is that WN is more business traveler friendly than any other airline flying – if you are flying to cities in their network. They have an impressive schedule compared to the “business” airlines in terms of frequency and time of day options; they no longer have a cattle call, you line up in order you checked in, if you are an elite FF you get free early boarding, so you are almost guaranteed a window or an aisle; you get free change fees … free!! – ok, it is baked in the fare – but the ludicrousness of a $200 or $250 change fee (and if you are a business traveler, then you have to deal with changes), is asinine; friendly staff, at the very least NOT grumpy…the “business airlines” are chock full of grumpy – and I am a nice traveler – not deserving of grumpy.

    The 1-3% of the plane that gets upgrades on the business airlines are the only ones getting any decent seats, the rest pretty much suck (ok, maybe not so much for the econ plus types), but in general we are all jammed in a metal tube playing elbonics for the arm rest hating every minute of it, but at least WN makes the trip more palatable than the “business airlines”.

    At least that is my opinion, and I am sticking to it :)

    1. Let’s discuss these points.

      1) Southwest’s advertising about change fees is SERIOUSLY misleading. No, they don’t have a change fee, but if you want to go standby or change something else, you have to upgrade to full fare. That can be $300 or more each way. A business traveler with status on other airlines pays…nothing…for that. Or even if you don’t have status it’s $75.

      2) Boarding is a cattle call. If you forget to check in, you’re stuck. Or you can pay a fee to the airline that doesn’t charge them for the privilege. And it’s still luck of the draw. Sorry…I would rather have my seat in hand.

      Don’t compare SW’s elite status to those of other airlines. On SW you can never upgrade…and if you are an elite on the legacy guys, you get the econ plus anyway. Hmmm…the cattle call, no seat pitch, gouged for standby, no upgrades ever, no power outlets, and the same or higher fares?

      Tell me again why a business traveler would choose that?

      1. The upgrade to full fare only applies if you’re flying standby. If you’re just changing dates or destinations, you just pay the fare difference between the old and new routing, which you’d have to do on the legacies, anyway.

        As a previously frequent business traveler who had the choice between AA and WN on many routes and was Platinum on AA, I can tell you I would consciously go with WN if the meeting I was scheduled to go to was even a little bit shaky. That choice once bailed me (or more correctly, the company) out of $600 in change fees because the dates changed twice. Yes, giving up the chance of an upgrade sucked, but I’d rather do that than risk having to explain hundreds of dollars in change fees on my expense report. And as far as the cattle call goes, just pay the $12.50 for Early Bird, you’ll get an “A” boarding pass and pretty much any aisle or window seat you want.

      2. “Or even if you don’t have status it’s $75.”

        It’s much more than that if you don’t have status.

      3. When was the last time you check the change fees? Its been more than $75 for about 5 years. Its hard to find used $150 on a legacy airlines.

      4. Here’s the thing about the cattle call/line up that really bugs me about Southwest and one of the reasons I don’t put them at the top of my list to fly.

        I like having a window seat. Its still pretty amazing to be able to watch this multi-ton machine loft itself up into the sky, its also fun to be able to see through the wing.

        I also don’t like being one of the first people on the plane. I’ll wander on somewhere in my boarding group, but I see no reason to be at the front of the line. But, If I wanted that window with Southwest, I’d have to be on the plane early, why should I sit for longer than I have to?

        The other thing is their boarding method disadvantages folks who are connecting with a tighter connection, who arrive at the gate to find the flight already boarding.

        1. Nick, for $12.50 each way you can get Early Bird Check-in which virtually assures you your choice of a window seat. Every time I’ve flown WN with EBC I’ve had NO problem getting a window seat. It may not be in your preferred part of the plane, but you will get one.

      5. Southwest is the opposite of a “cattle call.” It’s the most orderly boarding of any airline. You don’t get the situation that you do with any other airline, where everyone hovers around the gate for 20 minutes before boarding is even scheduled to begin, because they’re so worried about getting overhead space. With WN, you can stay seated until the exact moment your group is called, and then you have a very precise spot in line to go to. It’s fantastic, and something I wish other carriers would adopt, simply to cut down on the gate lice situation.

        1. People fight over overhead space on Southwest too. And it’s still a cattle call…no seat. I’d rather know.

          The point about the legacies dropping to SW service levels isn’t far off, but what you’re missing is SW fares have risen to match theirs.

          There is zero value in choosing them if you a very frequent flier.

          1. Does anyone even know the definition of a cattle call? According to Merriam-Webster, a cattle call is a mass audition. Even if we use the textbook definition loosely as a mass of people, I would argue that United’s boarding group 2 is more of a cattle call then Southwest’s entire boarding process.

            I am not loyal to one airline because I am based at PIT. I don’t have tons of options and prefer non-stops so in a lot of cases WN works best for me. While it’s nice to have an assigned seat when I have a tight connection, I typically use Southwest as a point to point airline so this issue would never impact me. I always use early-bird and always get a position in group A. Boarding is typically orderly as everyone sorts out where they should be, unlike legacy carriers where the gate area is often filled will “gate lice” creating a bottle neck and causing the boarding process to slow down. Sure I can’t board at the last minute, but in my experience its always they people boarding at the last minute that cause delays because there carry-ons need to be gate checked.

            Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but it seems a lot of the WN hate in these comments comes from 1. Not understanding the Southwest system and 2. Having no tolerance for a different way of doing things (legacy vs WN)

      6. I am not a regular Southwest passenger but I don’t see how Southwest’s change policy is misleading…they advertise free changes, not standby or same-day confirmed seats on alternate flighs Also, which other airlines offer free changes for elites? Other than award tickets, Alaska is the only one I can think of (for MVP Golds and 75Ks.)

        As far as boarding, I am an elite on two legacies and still have to line up early to play the gate lice game in order to board with my group if I want overhead space. Two lanes (first/elites and everyone else) with a giant self-filtering mob does not make for an elegant boarding process. Southwest reserves a spot in line so the mob doesn’t exist — everyone is pre-organized. It is interesting that UA has copied the A, B, C chutes of Southwest’s old process… Passengers still have seat assignments but everyone can line up without fighting through the mob.

        Although Southwest doesn’t have an F cabin they offer a very good baseline economy travel experience. I have also managed to get exit row or bulkhead seats while boarding in the B group and almost every time I have paid the Early Bird fee. Beyond the lack of an F cabin, another reason that it might be difficult to compared Southwest’s elite status with the legacies is that the legacies don’t offer anything quite like the Companion Pass. My significant other came with me on my current trip and we were both upgraded on one flight (of about an hour) but it didn’t come as a shock that we didn’t clear the longer flight to the hub… And we paid for both tickets.

        Finally, I think some other reasons a business traveler might choose Southwest are the frequency of flights between most cities, the ability to check two bags at no additional charge, typically friendly employees seem to genuinely enjoy their work, and the ability to avoid flying on flights operated by regional carriers (often in cramped cabins.)

        Southwest can very easily end up being a better value proposition and a better experience than economy on a legacy.

  8. I didn’t expect the cat fight about WN, but do generally agree that Spirit is going to cut into their (Southwest) market more than UA all other things being equal. That said, things are not equal and Houston is a major metro area in population and land area. Nobody on the south side wants to drive to IAH. They do it because they have to. WN is adding a (low cost) option from Hobby while Spirit is doing that from IAH. There should be more than enough O/D in the market to support both.

    Also, don’t forget that Houston was once the home of Continental. There are probably plenty disgruntled people there post merger that want to fly someone else. More options = good for them.

  9. Well, I’d have to disagree on some counts John G, Southwest for the Y passengers – the legacy carriers have devalued the product to Southwest levels; which is still above that of Allegiant or Spirit. Once you a a la cart up a Spirit fare it really is not all that competitive – especially to deal with the other nuances of Spirit. With regards to the Spirit expansion – those flights are all redeyes anyway so fleet utilization is a big piece of it, plus Terminal D at IAH is at capacity at peak times. I don’t think DFW to these destinations will be as successful, DFW O&D to the same destinations is not as strong – besides, they could have added those flights long time ago.

  10. By the time Southwest starts international flights from HOU they will have their new reservation system (Amadeus) full functional. Fares, free bags, no seating, might be a thing of the past… because it was a lack of technology what made southwest be different from the legacy carriers (when it was not that different anymore). So Spirit will really hurt them filling up the seats in the lowest fares…. but still Houston has long waited and needed good competition in international routes to the tropics.

  11. “United paid consultants to write reports talking up the doom and gloom scenarios”
    …of how this would ruin Jeff Smisek being able to make billions in a monopolistic environment by exposing them to evil competition who would exploit many of United’s operational shortcomings.

  12. Any chance Spirit shifts some or all of these flights to HOU once the mostly-SWA paid for customs facility opens? That would be a punch in the gut.

    1. IIRC, the international terminal is going to have 5 gates. Southwest is entitled to 4 and the last one can be given out by the airport authority. I don’t see any other airlines wanting it so perhaps Spirit will use it.

    2. Seems highly unlikely, given they would have to use the one shared gate and would lack any connection feed from all of their domestic flights at IAH. I suspect that one shared international gate at Hobby will be used by Latin American carriers.

    3. Randy – That’s not generally what Spirit likes to do, though you never know for sure. Look at Chicago. Spirit could have moved to Midway but it stuck with O’Hare. Spirit seems to like primary airports best, with limited exceptions.

  13. CF – I think that HOU ages ago had the type of close-in destinations international service. As for Spirit’s move I think it may unfortunately work. Southwest will have to work smart and hard to find it’s place because it markets itself as the “low fare” airline while, from what i’ve read, it’s now priced as or higher than United, for example. I think this is where southwest’s main problems will lie.

  14. The issue is that Southwest bills itself as a low-fare airline, and it is just not. We can disagree about the boarding process or seat selection, but the fares aren’t that low. Adding SW to Houston isn’t going to drop international fares significantly.

    Let’s look at some representative fares. I picked leaving Dec 11 and returning Dec 14, for a 2-week advance purchase.

    Atlanta-Nassau…$356 RT on Delta…$350 on Southwest
    San Antonio-Mexico City…$336 on American…$379 on Southwest
    Baltimore-Montego Bay…$381 on American…$509 on Southwest

    Now let’s check a few destinations where Southwest does not compete. LA to Los Cabos…$300 on Alaska…DFW to Nassau…$470.

    There isn’t really any “Southwest effect” anymore.

  15. Since I live near Houston I like idea of more international flights coming here. But I think it is going to cause Southwest to raise their fares even more. I agree with most that their fares are no longer the lowest, but usually are the best option for me.

  16. IMO i don’t think Southwest’s international aspirations are going to pay off like they think….Continental(as i still call them) has a large presence on the same Latin route’s Spirit is starting and soon Southwest….to many seats to the same markets, they all cant survive so one will end up dropping flights or drop the market….markets like Cancun and Los Cabos, resort type places will be the winning markets….this is going to be a very interesting game to watch….Continental and Spirit already have experience in the Latin markets…..Southwest is new, unknown in many places, time will tell….

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