Two fully booked planes, each with a seating capacity of 137 passengers, left the airport's newly built Terminal C amid fanfare that included a complimentary Mexican-style breakfast, sunglasses and other gifts from the airline.
"It's really a game-changer in many respects," said Gary Sherwin, president and chairman of the Orange County Tourism Council. "This is our first formal international service going into that new terminal. It opens us up to a whole new spectrum of business and leisure travel."
Sherwin, who is also president and chief executive of Visit Newport Beach, praised the terminal and revamped airport as an excellent representation of the county.
"An airport is like a community's doorstep," he said. "Your very first impressions of Orange County are what you see out of the plane windows, looking out at the tarmac, and what you experience inside the terminal."
There will be two inbound and outbound flights a day.
Arrivals on the first day of service were about 50% to 70% booked, said airline spokeswoman Ashley Dillon.
"We just started service yesterday, so we're doing what we can to get the word out and get Orange County familiar with the AirTran brand," she said Monday.
JWA represents AirTran's only international service in California, she said.
So far, the airline only has plans for the two stops in Mexico.
"We hope to see that it will be popular and we can add more flights and other international destinations in Mexico — that's certainly our hope," said airport spokeswoman Jenny Wedge. "We know that Mexico is a popular destination, and in Orange County it's now easier than ever to get there."
Flights from JWA to Mexico cost about $200 each way, according to the AirTran website.
Flights to the Caribbean could be added, Dillon said.
AirTran, which was acquired by Southwest Airlines in May last year, operates international flights out of San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Denver; Chicago and Atlanta, with destinations that include Mexico and the Caribbean.
"We're going to see how those markets [in Mexico] perform, then we're looking at expanding," she said. "Right now, we're pleased with the booking, pleased with the customer response, and we intend to see where the customers want to go besides these destinations."