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.
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]