Southwest Airlines appears likely to announce a major Fort Lauderdale expansion in the near future. In 2014, Southwest was the world’s second largest airline in terms of passengers carried but the completed 2015 American Airlines-US Airways merger (which created the world’s largest airline) and new labor agreements that will push up costs in addition to the delivery of new Boeing 737 MAX airplanes present challenges to the Dallas-based carrier’s market share and profitability.
JetBlue Airways has become the largest carrier at the airport with a methodical but carefully-planned expansion that since 2010 sees the airline today serving all but a handful of the most popular domestic and international destinations from the airport. While Spirit Airlines flies many of the same routes as JetBlue from Fort Lauderdale it can be argued the New York-based airline’s biggest local competition is American Airlines who operates a fortress hub down the road at Miami International Airport. From Miami, American services every major airport in the Western Hemisphere as well as London (Heathrow), Paris (CDG), Madrid, Milan (Malpensa) and Barcelona in Europe.
The jetBlue nonstop service network from Fort Lauderdale can be seen below. It’s not as extensive as Miami’s American network but it is quite impressive though some obvious holes in the network are there – more on that in a minute. It’s worth noting jetBlue will codeshare on Emirates Airline’s Fort Lauderdale-Dubai service which begins on December 15 opening up even more destinations to loyal fliers of the New York-based airline.
Southwest has patiently waited while a new Terminal 1 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International has been built. The terminal will feature five dedicated international gates allowing Southwest to target new international service out of Fort Lauderdale in a less-crowded customs area than jetBlue and Spirit use in Terminal 4. With a large presence already at the airport and a domestic network in medium and large metropolitan areas that is largely unparalleled, Southwest sits in a good position to try and lob off some of the origin and destination traffic from southeast Florida to Latin America while also using Fort Lauderdale effectively as a connecting complex – perhaps the single terminal idea will make Southwest a more attractive proposition for some travelers than jetBlue whose international flights arrive in Terminal 4 but onward domestic flights depart from Terminal 3.
Additionally, Southwest has nonstop service currently from Fort Lauderdale to far more midwestern and southwestern locales than jetBlue, though the New York-based airline has become a dominant player on flights to the west coast and Northeast from Fort Lauderdale. The map below shows the current network Southwest offers from Fort Lauderdale.
For twenty years Southwest has patiently built a useful point-to-point domestic network from Fort Lauderdale (and an even larger network from Orlando and Tampa). Now the airline is poised to try and become an international player from the state. The Dallas-based carrier has already begun to develop an impressive network to Central America and the Caribbean from Baltimore and Houston’s Hobby Airport. Now it appears Fort Lauderdale might host the airline’s first flights to South America. With a feeder network that is superior from the midwest and Texas, Southwest can compete for connecting passengers with JetBlue.
It’s worth remembering at this point that Spirit Airlines serves five South American destinations from Fort Lauderdale with nonstop service (Armenia, Bogota, Cartagena, Lima and Medellin) . JetBlue also serves five nonstop destinations from Fort Lauderdale, four of which Spirit serve (Bogota, Cartagena, Lima and Medellin) in addition to Quito. So if Southwest is to launch South American service from Fort Lauderdale they might be competing with both Spirit and JetBlue as well as American from Miami in addition to carriers based in South America. Since Southwest already carries almost as many domestic passengers to Fort Lauderdale as jetBlue even without a connecting network, the airline is well-positioned to capture traffic that will fly onward to the Caribbean and Latin America.
The intense competition from Latin America to South Florida has led many to speculate Southwest is entering the market too late. But history teaches us that Southwest has generally won most battles it engages in even if it enters late and appears to be facing long odds. When Southwest launches its Fort Lauderdale expansion based around international flights, it would be unwise to bet against the carrier.