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Southwest Airlines announces first Caribbean destinations; flights to begin July 1

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DALLAS - Southwest Airlines Co. is expanding beyond the continental United States with flights to the Caribbean beginning July 1.

The airline began selling tickets on Monday for flights to Aruba, the Bahamas and Jamaica from Atlanta, Baltimore and Orlando. Those routes are currently flown by AirTran Airways, which Southwest bought in 2011.

Southwest carries more passengers in the United States than any airline, but among the largest U.S. carriers, it alone doesn't fly beyond the nation's borders. Southwest has been talking about going international for years, but it's been held back by technological limits to its reservations system, which it has been upgrading.

Later this year, Southwest is expected to take over four AirTran destinations in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. It eventually plans to add international flights from Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and possibly other U.S. cities, but executives said that they probably won't announce details about those routes until 2015 or later.

AirTran's international flights account for less than 1 per cent of the parent company's passenger-carrying capacity, and that won't change with Monday's announcement about some flights switching from AirTran planes to Southwest ones. Chief commercial officer Bob Jordan said, however, that international flying is "a big part of our growth strategy" and could someday involve 70 to 80 Southwest aircraft.

Dallas-based Southwest plans to phase out the AirTran brand by year end.

Shares of Southwest slipped 13 cents to $20.70 in afternoon trading. Most other airline stocks were also lower on a rise in oil prices.

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