Southwest, Volaris to launch codeshare-like connecting product

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Southwest Airlines and Mexico's Volaris are preparing to launch a codeshare-like connecting product in the fourth quarter of this year as plans to implement a full codeshare have been further delayed.

The two low-cost carriers forged a partnership in 2008 envisioning a codeshare from 2010. But both Southwest and Volaris now tell Flightglobal that they plan to launch a "connecting product" in the fourth quarter of this year rather than a full codeshare.

The two carriers are currently blocked from starting a codeshare because the FAA at the end of July downgraded Mexico to Category 2 in its international aviation safety assessment (IASA) programme. But a Southwest spokeswoman says the carrier decided before the FAA downgrade that it would not be ready from an IT perspective to start codesharing this year.

"We're not at a point where we can do a full blown codeshare," the spokeswoman explains.

She stresses the connecting product being introduced later this year "is not in response to Category 2" but to limitations in technology capabilities.

Volaris chief commercial officer Holger Blankenstein says "we still plan to add a formal codeshare after Category 1 is regained, but the product we will launch in fourth quarter 2010 will be very similar to a codeshare for the customer".

Latin American and Caribbean airline association ALTA told Flightglobal last week that it hopes Mexico will be back in Category 1 by the end of this year as Mexican authorities are now working to hire and train additional check pilots, the primary shortcoming cited by the FAA in its downgrade decision. Blankenstein is not quite as optimistic, saying "we are hoping that Category 1 will be reinstated within six to 12 months".

Blankenstein adds: "Even though this is exclusively a government of Mexico problem, we have offered the government any assistance they might require to make that happen. Our connecting product with Southwest will not be affected by the Category 2 restrictions and is scheduled to launch in the fourth quarter 2010."

The Southwest spokeswoman says the connecting product will include bag transfers at Volaris' three US gateways - Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose in California. Each carrier will also be able to provide passengers with boarding passes on flights operated by the partner.

The Southwest spokeswoman says passengers will be able to book the connecting product on both the Southwest and Volaris websites. Currently the two carriers have a limited marketing tie-up in which Southwest.com promotes Volaris flights and hosts a Volaris microsite, but passengers must make two separate bookings and self-connect.

Both Southwest and Volaris says more details on their codeshare-like connecting product will be made available over the next several weeks.

While Volaris, which recently switched its reservation system supplier from Navitaire to Sabre, says it is committed to eventually implementing a full codeshare with Southwest, the Southwest spokeswoman says the carrier does not have a date on when it will be ready for full codeshares. She says the focus is now entirely on introducing the connecting product and streamlining the technology to support the implementation at its Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose stations.

"We've got a team working on that product right now," she says.

While passengers will unlikely notice the difference and probably experience something similar to the codeshare-like connecting product low-cost carriers Aer Lingus and JetBlue have had in Boston and New York JFK since 2008, the decision to delay a full codeshare represents yet another setback in Southwest's codeshare plans.

Southwest had a limited codeshare with now defunct US carrier ATA Airlines from 2005 to 2008 which had to be implemented manually due to technology limitations. Southwest began working on overhauling its reservation system to support full codeshares before ATA ceased operations in 2008.

After forging a partnership with Canada's WestJet later in 2008, Southwest began working towards having the technology in place for codeshares in late 2009. The codeshare plan with WestJet was later pushed back to 2010 and completely dissolved in April of this year.

Southwest at the time said it decided to cut ties with the WestJet after the Canadian low-cost carrier requested significant changes to the original deal. WestJet EVP strategy and planning Hugh Dunleavy told Flightglobal in June that while WestJet, which switched to the SabreSonic reservation system last October, was ready to start codesharing Southwest was not.

Dunleavy explained that when the two carriers forged their tie-up in 2008 neither carrier had reservation systems which could support "industry standard solutions" for codesharing. But he says "part of that agreement was both of us would work towards providing that industry standard capability so once we were in production we could then roll out the same environment for everyone else. Based on that we moved ahead with our plans and now our timing is different than our partners at Southwest. We now have the capability in place so now we would like to deploy that."

WestJet began interlining with Cathay Pacific in May and is now ready to roll out additional partners. As a priority WestJet is currently looking for an alternative US partner to take the place of Southwest but the Canadian carrier also aims to secure one or two partners from each continent outside North America.

Dunleavy says each WestJet partnership would start as an interline agreement, as is the case with the Cathay deal, and later migrate to a codeshare. WestJet has said it hopes to have one or two full codeshares in place by the end of this year.