Why are the low-cost carriers flying south?

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Photo: Bahamas.com
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 13, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Acapulco, airfare, Aruba, Cancun, Cayman Islands, Cozumel, Jamaica, Jessica Labrencis, Nassau, Puerto Rico, Puerto Vallarta, St. Thomas, Turks and Caicos.

Low-cost carriers such as JetBlue and Southwest have revolutionized domestic air travel, driving prices down for airfare and challenging the legacy airlines on many of their most popular routes. In recent months, many of the low-fare lines have announced new service to the Caribbean or Mexico. It's not a new phenomenon, but it's a growing one. So why are they all flying south?

Less competition

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No fewer than six low-fare or traditionally smaller carriers have announced new service to Caribbean destinations in 2005. AirTran and Frontier added Mexico routes, while JetBlue and Independence Air added Puerto Rico routes. Song and Spirit have added routes elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Northeast-to-Florida routes have always been prominent routes for low-fare carriers, but now the market is flooded with legacy- and low-cost service. "To expand those lines, [the low-cost carriers] have to look for additional routes where the main competition is still from the legacy lines... the most likely targets are from the Northeast and Midwest to the Northern Caribbean—especially Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico," says industry expert and contributing editor Ed Perkins.

Short, quick flights

Another benefit to Caribbean expansion for the airlines is the quick turn-around for flights. Although struggling low-fare carrier Independence Air recently cut most of its West Coast service, the airline is adding service between Washington, D.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Rick DeLisi, Independence Air's director of corporate communications, explains that the airline plans to continue flying more short routes on its Airbus aircraft instead of longer, more fuel-consuming routes.

DeLisi says that flights to San Juan are three-and-a-half hours, while flights to the West Coast are five-and-a-half to six hours. The shorter routes will help the airline reduce its fuel consumption. Perkins agrees. "These new routes are short enough that the quick turn-around strategies work to the advantage of the low-cost lines."

Demand from travelers

Leisure travel to the Caribbean is big business, with new hotels and resorts popping up often. Many of the low-fare airlines are finding their existing Caribbean routes very profitable, and are adding others.

Spirit recently announced a major Caribbean expansion, adding the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, and Turks and Caicos to its roster. Spokeswoman Lynne Koreman says, "The Caribbean [is] more popular than ever. Our customers have been clamoring for more service to the Caribbean." This winter, about 25 percent of Spirit's flights will be to the Caribbean, and the airline expects to double that number within two years.

JetBlue has also added Caribbean service, with new flights between New York's JFK airport and Ponce, Puerto Rico; and between Boston and Nassau, The Bahamas. It also recently applied to the Department of Transportation for permission to begin service to Cancun in the future. Bryan Baldwin, JetBlue's coordinator of corporate communications, explains, "As new aircraft arrive, many factors are considered when deciding where to fly them—from the state of the industry to seasonal demand to individual market strength. We've had strong demand and success serving our existing Caribbean markets."

Many of the previously announced new routes begin in time for the Caribbean's peak travel season in late 2005 and early 2006. As more airlines continue to add more routes south of the border, travelers can expect lower fares and more flight options, particularly from the Northeast.

Editor's note: Below you'll find a table indicating the most recent new Caribbean routes from AirTran, Frontier, Independence Air, JetBlue, Song, and Spirit.

Airline New route Start date
AirTran Atlanta to Cancun December 15
Frontier Denver to Cozumel December 17
Frontier Denver to Acapulco December 18
Frontier Kansas City to Puerto Vallarta December 17
Independence Air Washington, D.C. (Dulles), to San Juan, Puerto Rico December 16
JetBlue New York (JFK) to Ponce, Puerto Rico June 17
JetBlue Boston to Nassau, Bahamas February 2, 2006
Song New York (JFK) to Aruba July 23
Spirit Ft. Lauderdale to Kingston and Montego Bay, Jamaica November 10
Spirit Ft. Lauderdale to St. Thomas December 15
Spirit Ft. Lauderdale to Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands February 9, 2006
Spirit Ft. Lauderdale to Providenciales, Turks and Caicos February 16, 2006
Spirit Ft. Lauderdale to Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos February 19, 2006
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