On Thursday, Southwest Airlines (SWA) shared its initial plans for Hawaiian service, including gateway cities and plans for intra-Hawaiian service.
At the time of writing, all of Southwest’s Hawaiian gateway cities are in California. Airports include Oakland Metropolitan Airport (OAK), San Diego International Airport (SAN), Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC), and Sacramento International Airport (SMF).
“We are so thrilled about this,” said Rosemary Barnes, a spokeswoman for SJC. “For us it shows how Southwest has a real focus on our airport. They are increasing facilities at San Jose, putting more staff there. Southwest is making a huge commitment to San Jose. Hawaii is a whole other demographic for San Jose beyond the business traveler. This opens up the potential for more leisure travelers.”
When revealing Californian gateway cities, Southwest also announced the four Hawaiian airports that it will initially serve: Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu (HNL), Kahului Airport on Maui (OGG), Lihue Airport on Kauai (LIH), and Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA).
“Now I don’t see us serving just one city pair for very long, and I’d rather not say how short just yet,” Southwest President Tom Nealon said. “But yeah, I think we’re definitely planning to start very modestly.”
Southwest is currently planning on flying 175-seat Boeing 737-800s for its Hawaiian service.
Southwest’s Hawaiian routes are pending approval by the FAA, so start dates for the services have not yet been released. The approval process may take months to complete.
Southwest does hope to start selling tickets this year. It will open up the booking window for flights through January 6, 2019 later this month.
“The way we plan to serve Hawaii requires us to share these initial details now so that our facilities in the airports will be ready for all that we intend to offer,” Nealon told a gathering of Hawaiian civic, tourism, and government leaders in Waikiki. “We’re on-track with our plans to sell tickets this year and are respectfully engaged in the process to receive FAA authorization to operate between the mainland and the Islands.”
Southwest leaders have been meeting with community officials in Hawaii for years to gain insight on serving the region.
Steve Goldberg, the Senior Vice President of Operations and Hospitality at Southwest, says that Hawaii’s “aloha spirit” is something that the airline could “get on board with.”
“We see similarities between ‘aloha’ and Southwest hospitality. Our goal is to create an environment where both employees and customers feel welcomed, cared for, and appreciated. And when you talk about the aloha spirit, and the lovingness of the aloha spirit, it really matches up well with what we’re trying to do,” said Goldberg.
“It’s really important for us that we do hire locally, here on the islands. We’ll bring some employees from the mainland, just to mix in that existing ‘Southwest’ flavor. We look for the right attitude. A really good attitude. We’ll train people for skill but we’re looking for people with a great attitude and an interest in hospitality,” continued Goldberg.
Southwest is also considering interisland flights. Such service could potentially drive regional carriers like Mokulele Airlines and Makani Kai Air, who depends on interisland travel, out of business. A Southwest entry into the market could also damage the business of Hawaiian Airlines, currently the largest carrier in Hawaii. (Hawaiian has a near monopoly on interisland flights in Hawaii, controlling about 90% of the market. It can be noted, though, that, in entering the interisland market, Southwest is entering a market that has seen multiple airlines go out of business due to competition with Hawaiian.
“We really need to take [Hawaiian’s] monopoly away. Competition is always good. I hope they can make it, though. But you know, Hawaiian has been very good to me,” said Caroline Guerrero, a Hilo resident.
“[We will offer] comparable, and if not, better [prices than Hawaiian Airlines] We are the low-fare airline. Our goal is to come in here with low fares, and great service,” said Goldberg.
In a statement, Ann Botticelli, Hawaiian Airlines Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, said, “Southwest’s PR strategy has been to toss out tidbits without much detail, so it’s unclear what kind of service or operation they are committing to.
“What I can say is that we fly 170 B717 flights every day between our Islands, from 5 a.m. to 10:15 p.m. We employ thousands of Hawai’i residents – more than 1,000 mechanics, flights attendants, pilots and ground staff specifically for this part of our network – in careers that pay well, keep local talent in Hawai’i and help our economy grow. Our operation is convenient and extremely punctual thanks to world-class employees who welcome our guests with unparalleled hospitality, so we are not afraid of competition.
“We found Mr. Nealon’s statement about fares curious. The one-way fares for close-in travel tomorrow on one of our most popular routes — Honolulu-Kona — range from $85 to $195, while Southwest’s one-way fares for travel tomorrow from Austin-Houston — a flight of similar length — range from $233 to $270.”
Only time can tell if Southwest will succeed in offering interisland flights. One major plus for Hawaiian is their expertise in the market. Hawaiian has been flying in the Hawaiian market for nearly 90 years and is a well-established presence. The carrier has been able to face (and conquer) financial difficulty multiple times, and can surely survive Southwest’s competition. Hawaiian is such a trusted brand, in fact, that legacy carriers in the US often put their own passengers on Hawaiian flights to reach small airports that only Hawaiian and a few small regional carriers fly to. For many, switching away from Hawaiian may take time, which could harm Southwest’s Hawaiian presence.
Another issue that Southwest could face is the ripple effect of a reduction in bookings after an engine malfunction caused the Number 1 engine on a Southwest 737-700 to explode in flight, killing a passenger.
However, Southwest does seem to have an effect on airline prices. A University of Virginia study once identified a trend labeled the “Southwest Effect” in which routes that Southwest operated had fares $45 lower than comparable routes that Southwest doesn’t serve.
Southwest first announced its plans to serve Hawaii last October after years of demand from customers. American Airlines has also announced plans to serve Hawaii. It recently revealed plans to reinstate service between Chicago O’Hare and Honolulu.
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