Southwest, WestJet link

Code sharing will bring added international service to BWI

July 09, 2008|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun reporter

Southwest Airlines announced yesterday that it would link up with Canadian low-cost carrier WestJet, its first concrete step in launching the international service it has talked up for years.

Selling seats on each other's planes by late 2009 under a so-called code-sharing arrangement will grant the two airlines access to new customers with little additional cost, provided the agreement gains regulatory approval from U.S. and Canadian authorities. Calgary-based WestJet, which modeled its operations and corporate culture on Southwest when it started up in 1996, offers service to 49 destinations in Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States.

The airlines said routes and other details won't be announced until late next year.

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where Southwest is the dominant carrier, hopes WestJet will start flights there under the partnership. BWI has been bleeding international flights in recent years. Air Canada offers daily flights to Toronto, but BWI has demand for nonstop routes to Montreal and Calgary, two routes that WestJet serves, airport spokesman Jonathan Dean said.

"BWI will work with both Southwest and WestJet to make the case for new service," Dean said. "It's good news that Southwest is moving ahead with its plans."

The WestJet partnership comes after Southwest lost its partner ATA Airlines, which filed for bankruptcy in April. Southwest was to expand its partnership with Indianapolis-based ATA to offer service to Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada by 2009. The ATA partnership did offer passengers service to Hawaii, a coveted destination that Southwest doesn't serve.

From Canada, WestJet flies to three locations in Hawaii, but Southwest passengers won't likely be able to access those destinations, said Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman for the Dallas-based airline. Federal aviation guidelines bar foreign carriers from flying between U.S. markets.

Neither Southwest nor WestJet would disclose details about how the partnership would affect routes, flight schedules and fares. But WestJet's existing flights will soon be available for purchase on Southwest's Web site and the carriers are considering the integration of their frequent-flier programs, ground operations and air cargo services.

Like Southwest, WestJet already operates a fleet of all Boeing 737-series aircraft and remains profitable despite the onset of record-high fuel prices. WestJet has 75 planes in its fleetand plans to add 46 aircraft by 2013. Southwest had 527 Boeing 737s in its fleet as of May.

What WestJet won't add is routes to Europe or Asia, because long intercontinental flights aren't possible on 737 planes, said Richard Bartrem, a spokesman for WestJet.

Because it's nearly impossible for a U.S. carrier to merge with a foreign airline, a code-share marketing arrangement is an easier and cheaper way for an airline to gain access to international markets, said Bob Harrell, a New York-based airline analyst.

"You get some of the benefits of running a single operation but none of the complications," said Harrell, president of Harrell Associates, a travel industry consulting group. "WestJet is a Southwest clone basically. There's a lot of synergy between the philosophical approaches of both businesses."

Speaking at BWI a year ago, Southwest CEO Gary C. Kelly said the airline also expected to offer codeshare connections to Europe by 2010. But yesterday Southwest wouldn't confirm at what date a partnership with a European carrier might materialize.

"Our first interest is going to be in that near-international - Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean," Eichinger said. "Once we get those up and running, then the next step would be to look at other international service. But we're not there yet."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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