That’s one small flight for a 737, one giant leap forward for Southwest Airlines and Houston Hobby Airport (HOU). In a sign of things to come, Southwest added to its daily Aruba service out of Baltimore and Orlando with a seasonal weekly flight between Houston and Aruba’s Queen Beatrix International Airport (AUA). Last Saturday, I joined Southwest for the inaugural flight between Aruba and Houston. This flight was the first international commercial arrival into Hobby airport.
Although Hobby Airport does not have customs and immigration facilities, Southwest is able to operate the flight thanks to the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) preclearance facility in Aruba, which allows passengers to clear customs and immigration prior to departing for the United States. This October, however, Hobby Airport is scheduled open a new five-gate international terminal, complete with customs and immigration facilities, which will enable Southwest to further add to its international offerings at Houston.
I arrived in Aruba the day before on a Southwest flight from Orlando, which was operated by the uniquely liveried Maryland One. The flight from Orlando to Aruba is itself a newer route for Southwest, being a former Air Tran route that was incorporated into Southwest’s network last year. I will never grow tired of flights over the Caribbean – this flight was spectacular, with great views of the Bahamas, Haiti, and Turks and Caicos.
Upon arriving in Aruba, I found everyone to be extremely friendly and welcoming – a true embodiment of the island’s motto, “One Happy Island.” Although my time in Aruba was very limited, I did have the opportunity to walk around and explore the island a bit.
The brightly-colored buildings of Orangestad, Aruba’s main town, give way to beautiful white sand beaches and a warm turquoise sea – a true tropical paradise. I really enjoyed soaking up the island’s uniquely diverse culture with its seemingly equal Caribbean, Latin American, and Dutch influences.
The next morning, I arrived at Queen Beatrix International Airport, got checked in, and took the pleasant outdoor walk to the terminal building. After clearing passport control and security, I got to the United States Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) preclearance facility.
This facility features both Global Entry and automated passport control (APC) kiosks. Aruba CBP port director James Grimes says that these newly-installed APC kiosks take away the routine paperwork burden from the immigration officers, shortening clearance times by forty percent. Indeed, my experience with preclearance was a fast one – it took less than five minutes for me to scan my passport into the automated kiosk, get a receipt, and check out with a CBP officer.
Other members of our group with Global Entry credentials were through the checkpoint in even less time. The one downside to the preclearance facility is having to clear security twice. This is necessitated by the fact that after checking their luggage with the airline, passengers must then re-claim the bags to bring through customs, then re-check them again with the airline. The airport currently has plans in the works that will streamline this process to allow bags to be inspected by CBP officials without ‘contaminating’ the passengers, eliminating the need for passengers to clear a second security screening checkpoint.
If there is one thing I can say about Southwest Airlines, it’s that they’ve got style. The departure gate was fully decked out for a party with balloons, a steel drum band (yes, they played the ubiquitous Beach Boys song, “Kokomo”), women in traditional Aruban costume, and a unique cake celebrating the occasion. A number of passengers, who had no idea they had booked a landmark flight, looked on at the celebration with amused bewilderment.
A brief ceremony at the gate featured speeches by representatives from Southwest Airlines, the Aruba Tourism Authority, and the AUA Airport. It is clear that this service means a lot for both the airline and the Island of Aruba. Sanju Luidens-Daryanani, Chief Marketing Officer for the Aruba Tourism Authority sees the route as the result of a strategic marketing strategy that will help expand tourism from additional US markets.
“This [flight] opens up the midwest and the west coast, which are growth markets for us and markets where we want to expand our presence. The US and Canada represent sixty percent of our market right now.” She continued, “The northeast corridor, which is a traditional market for the Caribbean, represents sixty percent of that total and therefore, we would like to expand into other markets where there is not such a heavy Caribbean presence.”
Aruba has experienced a surge in tourism in recent years. Last year, the island clocked over one million non-cruise line visitors for the first time. The airport is reacting to the influx of new tourists by expanding and remodeling. According to James Fazio, the CEO of AUA, the plans include the addition of four new gates, as well as the aforementioned major reconfiguration of the United States preclearance facility.
Reluctantly leaving the gate party behind, we boarded the (freshly painted in Southwest’s new livery) 737-700 bound for Houston. The atmosphere on board remained festive passengers were given a commemorative towel) and once we were in the air, we were treated to free drinks, a round of giveaways, and the most fun five-hour flight I have ever been on.
It was clear that the flight crew was very excited to be part of this event. All of the Houston-based flight attendants on this flight had nearly thirty years of seniority with the airline and were thrilled to finally be flying to such an exotic international destination. As one flight attendant put it, “After all these years of flying to places like Tulsa and Oklahoma City, it’s nice to be going somewhere tropical.”
The flight went fast, with more spectacular views of the Caribbean including Haiti, Cuba, and South Florida. As we flew over the Gulf of Mexico, I glanced out the window and saw that we were crossing over the Mississippi River delta. Crossing the Mississippi really felt like a symbolic moment, as this flight is one of only two that fly from Aruba to destinations west of the Mississippi (the other being a United flight into Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) airport).
Arriving at the newly-minted Houston Hobby International airport, our flight was greeted with a fire truck water cannon salute and met with another party (and more cake) in the boarding area. Southwest sure does know how to throw a party.
For Southwest, this flight was just a teaser of what is to come. The completion of the new $156-million five-gate international concourse at Hobby will enable Southwest to serve additional international destinations without the need to rely on CBP preclearance facilities.
The airline has filed with the Department of Transportation to fly new international routes to four destinations in Mexico (Cancun, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, and San Jose del Cabo/Los Cabos), as well as San Jose, Costa Rica, and Belize. A study conducted on behalf of the Houston Airport System estimated that the new international concourse would contribute 10,000 jobs, providing an annual $1.6 billion boon to the local economy. The study also predicts an annual increase of 1.6 million travelers through Hobby Airport.
While the new Aruba service is definitely a benefit to the greater Houston area, it is also good for the overall region, as it opens up one-stop service on Southwest from much of the western United States. Case in point – as a Denver-based traveler, my outbound itinerary required an overnight stay in Orlando to catch the flight into Aruba the following day. However, by returning on the Aruba to Houston flight, I was sleeping in my own bed the very same evening of the day that I began with a run on the beach in Aruba.
Although my time in Aruba was short, I’m hooked. When I got home, I told my wife that we were going back as a family – toddler included. And it’s very likely that Southwest will carry us there. See you again soon, Aruba.
Note: Southwest Airlines provided flights and accommodations for this trip. All opinions are my own.