BWI continues international expansion with nonstop route to Los Cabos

Starting this summer: Southwest flights from BWI to Los Cabos, Mexico

First it was San Jose, Costa Rica; then Reykjavik, Iceland. On Monday, officials at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport announced plans by Southwest Airlines — the airport's largest carrier — to begin nonstop service to Los Cabos, Mexico.

In the last couple of months, the Anne Arundel County airport has been on something of an international hot streak, with officials cheerily announcing new routes abroad just as they prepare to begin a $125 million expansion of the airport's international wing.

Paul Wiedefeld, the CEO of BWI, said the growth "reflects the marketplace" for the airport, which has a strong regional customer base, a solid partnership with Southwest and plenty of opportunities in the growing low-fare trans-Atlantic market.

"We're in a very good spot," Wiedefeld said.

The growth is something of a reversal of fortunes. In 2007, 10 years after the airport opened its existing $147 million international terminal to attract more customers, it was seeing its international offerings dwindle.

Icelandair pulled out that year, not long after Mexicana Airlines. Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline, had ended BWI service in 2004.

But between 2009 and 2013, international travel nearly doubled. While overall traffic declined by 0.8 percent in 2013, international travel grew by about 20 percent, in part on the strength of Condor Airlines' service to Frankfurt, Germany, and British Airways' daily routes to London.

Southwest's entry into the international market spurred the growth this year and promises additional growth in coming years, Wiedefeld said.

The domestic carrier, which operates more than 70 percent of flights at BWI with subsidiary AirTran, broke onto the internatonal scene for the first time at BWI this summer, taking over AirTran flights to Aruba, Nassau in the Bahamas, and Montego Bay in Jamaica.

The airline announced service to Costa Rica last month. It also flies to Cancun, Mexico, and Punta Cana in the Dominican Repbulic.

The new Southwest route to Los Cabos will become BWI's first nonstop route to the Mexican resort city, though it has offered connector flights on other airlines.

All of the growth is a function of Southwest's reliance on BWI as an East Coast hub, Wiedefeld said.

"Every time they make an announcement, we've been right there," he said.

Adding to the Southwest growth was the announcement last month from the Icelandic carrier WOW Air that it will begin offering direct flights from Baltimore to Reykjavik, and on to London and Copenhagen — part of what Wiedefeld sees as the increasing interest in low-fare trans-Atlantic travel.

Tom Parsons, an industry analyst at BestFares.com, said Baltimore is a clear beneficiary of Southwest's growth in the international market.

As BWI adds international flights, it offers more competition for Washington Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport, which only benefits fliers in the region, Parsons said. It also is a major connecting point for Southwest for fliers from the Northeast, he said.

"They look at Baltimore as a good expansion city for them, especially when it comes to international," Parsons said of Southwest. "People on the East Coast like to go to the Carribbean. It's just in their blood."

Pending government approval, the new Los Cabos route will run Saturdays between BWI and San Jose del Cabo starting June 13, Southwest said.

The San Jose flights begin in March. The Reykjavik flights — being offered at extremely low fares by WOW as it tries to push into the market — begin in June.

At BWI, construction is expected to begin soon on the new Concourse D/E terminal connection, which will allow gates to swing between international and domestic service as needed.

Southwest has said its current fleet could serve 50 international destinations, though it hasn't committed to serving all of them, and that it will be increasing its fleet capacity in coming years.

Wiedefeld said that bodes well for Baltimore, which planned its terminal expansion because of expected growth from — and in consultation with — Southwest.

"We'll get a little more [international business] in 2015," Wiedefeld said, "and then I think it really starts to move in '16 and '17."

krector@baltsun.com

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