MIAMI — Southwest Airlines has officially reached the century mark. On Monday, December 12, the airline went down in the record books, launching historic service to Havana, Cuba from Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.
Havana, Cuba marks destination #100 for Southwest Airlines. The low-cost-carrier, which began as an intra-state Texas airline, has grown into the nation’s largest domestic carrier since its first flight between Dallas and Houston in 1971. Cuba marks a big feather in Southwest’s cap as it clears one-hundred destinations served, a significant milestone for Herb Kelleher’s upstart airline.
Southwest became the fourth domestic carrier to launch service to Cuba back in November, when it debuted flights between Fort Lauderdale and Varadero. Havana represents the second Cuban city served by the airline. On December 15, Southwest will inaugurate flights from Fort Lauderdale to its third Cuban city, Santa Clara.
On Board the First Flight: Tampa, Florida to Havana, Cuba
The party started bright and early for Southwest. At Airways, we joined Southwest Airlines on board the historic first flight to Havana: WN3952, a 06:15 departure from Tampa.
Passengers were greeted with festive celebrations as they approached Gate C43. A live performer was on hand, and customers were treated to Cuban pastries and a special, Cuba-shaped cake honoring the new service. A brigade of company employees and officers – about thirty – were on hand for the big occasion, including Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly.
Boarding commenced for WN3952 a little earlier than usual – about forty-five minutes in advance of departure to allow for the festivities. CEO Kelly took the microphone to kick off the boarding process: “I want to thank all of the Southwest warriors who are here to make sure we have a wonderful flight to Havana, Cuba, our one-hundredth destination,” he said.
“Let’s get this party started,” proclaimed Kelly.
The boarding process needed a bit more time than anticipated, with doors officially closing at 06:22. Prior to departure, Southwest crews snapped a photo for the record books, with all passengers donning the Cuban hats and Cuban flags which had been placed in each seat.
WN3952 headed for the runway and climbed out over Tampa during the morning’s still-dark hours, on its way to Cuba. It was a completely full flight for the inaugural – 175 seats booked out of 175.
Once in air and at cruising altitude, Kelly once again extended a welcome to all of those on board. “Well, we’re going to Cuba,” said Kelly, standing near the front of the cabin, which brought about a round of laughter. He went on to again thank all of those who contributed to make this day possible. WN 3952 began its descent shortly thereafter, with air time scheduled for under an hour on this short flight.
With the sun still rising in the background, WN 3952 hit the ground in Havana, Cuba at 07:29 for the first time. It marked the dawn of Southwest’s historic service to Havana, Cuba, and the dawn of Southwest’s 100th destination. Passengers let out thunderous applause as the plane hit the surface of the runway.
As the aircraft taxied toward the gate, it was greeted with a traditional water cannon salute.
Following the arrival of WN3952, Southwest hosted a follow-up event for all of its employees and officers on board, as well as any press. There, Kelly exchanged ceremonial gifts with Hector Sardinas, one of the deputy airport directors for Havana Airport. Sardinas presented Kelly with a gift, a locally made bowl, to commemorate the day. Kelly offered Sardinas a model of a Southwest 737 aircraft as a tribute to the carrier’s newly launched service.
By the time that most of the United States was in full swing, Southwest’s record first flight to Havana, Cuba was in the books.
Cuba is a “Significant” #100 For Southwest as It Reaches the Century Mark
Havana, Cuba is a very notable addition for Southwest in many ways. Not only does Havana constitute Southwest’s 100th destination on its route map, but it represents new international service to the Cuban capital. Many American-based carriers have been seeking access to Cuba for years, but have only recently received the opportunity due to improving U.S.-Cuba relations. The two countries reached a trade agreement this year allowing for twenty flights per day from the U.S. to Havana.
At Airways, we asked Kelly about the importance of Cuba to Southwest prior to the flight’s departure: “it’s very significant,” stated Kelly. “I remember when I first started with Southwest, he recalled, stating that he could not have imagined ever clearing one-hundred destinations served.” It is a tribute to how far Southwest has evolved over just his own tenure with Southwest, Kelly believes.
As little as a year ago, however, Southwest had no plans to launch service to Cuba. “Everyone now knows that Havana is our 100th city, and a year ago we had no plans,” he remarked while on the ground in Havana, attributing the speed of the launch to the tireless work of his team.
Kelly sees high potential in Cuba, anticipating traffic “to be strong in both directions.” He believes that the carrier’s low fares and Bags Fly Free policy are key advantages as it seeks to build up Cuban traffic: “if you bring low fares, the traffic will come,” he said. “We’re committed to bringing low fares and to making travel affordable for everyone,” a line he repeated frequently throughout the morning.
Southwest is Invested in Cuba “For the Long-Haul”
Gary Kelly had previously labeled Cuba as “one of those once in a lifetime opportunities.” He did not shy away from those remarks on Monday, again calling Cuba a “huge milestone” for Southwest.
Southwest previously acquired three of the twenty total daily slots available to service Havana. The U.S. Department of Transportation also cleared the airline to offer flights to Varadero and Santa Clara. At the time, many believed that gaining access to Cuba (particularly Havana due to the slot restrictions) was a one-shot opportunity that was too great to pass up.
Despite the strong fanfare, however, Southwest’s launch comes as some other carriers are reporting headwinds in Cuba, citing weaker than expected demand in Cuban markets. This has led some airlines, such as American Airlines, to trim capacity to Cuba’s secondary (non-Havana) cities.
Nonetheless, Kelly insisted that Southwest has no intentions to change its Cuban plans, saying that “what our competitors are doing has no bearing on what we’re doing. We’re just getting started, but we’re in it for the long-haul.”
Kelly reiterated as much to Havana’s deputy airport director Sardinas on Monday: “when we make a commitment, we stick with it,” he promised. “Please know that we will continue to serve your country for decades to come.
After forty-five years of operations, Southwest Airlines has cleared the century mark. There could hardly have been a bigger splash than Havana as #100 for Southwest. Destination #101 is on the way as well, with Santa Clara set to debut later this week.
Now, the lingering question is: where will #102 be?
Alex McIntyre, Airways
December 12, 2016