Southwest Airlines announced Friday that it is seeking government approval for flights to the Central American Nation of Costa Rica. In its initial application, Southwest asked the US Department of Transportation to approve flights between Baltimore Washington International Airport in Maryland and San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.
This move is part of Southwest’s recent expansion into the international passenger market. Much of the support for the international development came from their 2010 acquisition of AirTran Airways, which was already in the process of developing international routes. Destinations currently served by Southwest Airlines include Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Aruba, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. Friday’s Costa Rica announcement comes on the heels of rumors that Southwest may also be considering flights to Canada; though the company has yet to announce plans.
Situated between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is home to some of the world’s best known natural tourist attractions including a tropical rain forest, volcanos, beaches and river rafting. As one of the most politically stable nations in Latin America, Costa Rica has developed a thriving tourism-based economy, with visitors from all over the world. Most airline passengers arrive at Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose. A smaller number of flights by airlines such as American and United arrive daily at Liberia’s Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in the northwest of the country. The Liberia airport provides convenient access to Costa Rica’s coastal and rainforest regions.
In a land once accessible only by legacy airlines, low-cost carriers have been making large inroads over the last 10 years. Southwest competitors jetBlue and Spirit Airlines already offer flights to San Jose as well as to a range of other destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean. International travel, as compared to domestic US travel, generally affords airlines higher fares, making them an attractive target for expansion. Also, unlike transatlantic and transpacific flights, with require large, long distance aircraft and heavy regulation, international flights within the Western Hemisphere are well within the reach of low-cost carriers, giving the legacy carriers a run for their money. Low-cost international travel will still be more expensive than a domestic trip of the same distance, but increasing competition will help keep prices reasonable and afford to price-sensitive travelers the opportunity to experience new parts of the world.
As low-cost carriers continue to expand their networks beyond their original niches, they will continue to push into the realm of legacy carriers. At the same time, legacy carriers such as American, Delta and United, have begun to offer lower cost options to customers. This convergence of airline behavior is a direct result of market demand for inexpensive air fares, with amenities and upgrades as independent options. Only time will tell if the trend continues, but one thing is for sure – Southwest will not be left behind.