Southwest Airlines will more than double its transpacific service in Hawaii beginning June 6, a move that will add nearly a third to its nationwide workforce.
The Dallas-based airline currently operates 16 round-trip flights between Hawaii and the mainland every day. The summer flight schedule planned today expands the trans-Pacific offer to 37 round-trip flights, including direct flights between Las Vegas and the four main Hawaiian islands.
The airline is adding new gateways in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Additional flights will also be added in San Diego and an additional one in the California cities of Long Beach, San Jose and Oakland. It is planned to keep the Interisland schedule of 34 to 36 departures per day.
Southwest President Tom Nealon, who spoke to the Star Advertiser Tuesday, said conditions were finally right for the Southwest to implement its prepandemic plan for Hawaii.
“The demand for leisure time is very strong. The demand for Hawaii is very, very solid. We have the elevators and we have the network to do this – now is a great time, ”said Nealon. “This is really just the culmination of what we expected a year ago.”
The Southwest has had big dreams for Hawaii since it launched on March 17, 2019.
But just days before Hawaii’s take-off, Southwest’s original plan encountered turbulence with Boeing 737 Max aircraft landing after fatal crashes at Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines.
Southwest Hawaii’s aggressive expansion was again disrupted by the pandemic, which saw demand for travel drop due to COVID-19 fears and government containment measures.
Nealon recalls being in Hawaii for the airline’s one year anniversary, preparing for the next phase of its expansion. However, he found he was only there for a day before being called back to the company’s Texas headquarters.
“We had our (nationwide) bookings down by 92% overnight,” he said.
The Southwest eventually cut back from around 4,200 flights a day across the country to 1,500 flights during the pandemic. However, Nealon said it continues to support its fledgling Hawaii market, including keeping smaller new stations like Hilo open.
“We didn’t stop, we had to pull back and put off a year until things got going again,” he said.
The demand for travel is now returning in Hawaii and elsewhere – good news for Southwest, which posted net income of $ 116 million in the first quarter. or 19 cents a share, including $ 1.2 billion in wage support.
The southwest reached a tipping point in mid-March when bookings across the network improved. It increased its capacity by 50%, or about 1,000 daily departures. So far, more flights have been added to Denver than Hawaii, but in percentage terms the planned Hawaii increases are larger.
Another important development for Southwest is that the airline is in the final stages of ETOPS certification for its 737 Max 8 fleet. ETOPS stands for Extended Range Twin Engine Engine Operational Performance Standard, and the airline needs this approval to be able to fly long overwater routes for hours from emergency airports.
Getting permission to fly the more fuel efficient aircraft is critical to Southwest Hawaii’s expansion as the Max 8 has lower operating costs and extends flight range.
Andrew Watterson, executive vice president and chief commercial officer of Southwest, told the star advertiser Tuesday that the expansion will bring Southwest’s connections between Hawaii and the mainland to 45 US cities. The airline previously had connections between Hawaii and 23 cities that could bring customers to Denver. Now Southwest will have the connections to carry customers between Nashville, Tennessee and Hawaii.
“By opening up to Vegas and Phoenix, we have a connection to the east that we didn’t have before,” said Watterson. “We will have several gateways through which you can connect during the day and still get home without red eyes (night flight).”
The next challenge for the Hawaiian southwest is making sure its expansion is well received when hostility to tourism emerges. During the pandemic, Hawaiian residents got a taste of less crowded islands, and some of them liked it, especially those who live near hot spots that were dealing with tourism before the visitor industry closed.
Southwest is known for lower tariffs. This has led some critics to speculate that the airline is at odds with the state’s focus on increasing tourism revenue by increasing visitor spending rather than arrivals.
Nealon, as he sees it, said customers “don’t pay that much for their ticket, which means they have more money in their pockets.”
Southwest also carries a large chunk of loyalty customers who are quite wealthy on its Hawaiian routes, he said.
Watterson added, “Just because we don’t stick to the customer with high prices, you can assume they are cheap customers. No, they are customers who value a low price and a high quality product. We bring that with us and we think this is a customer that would be a good fit for Hawaii. “
Additionally, Southwest said its expansion will add money to the local economy by creating jobs. During this phase, the airline will add 100 employees to its 322-strong Hawaii workforce. To apply, visit swa.is/HawaiiHiring.
Companies across the country and in Hawaii have reported recruitment problems caused by the pandemic. As the economy recovers, some workers are afraid to go back to work. In some cases, the generous support from the federal pandemic has created an incentive to get back to work.
Nealon said he was optimistic that Southwest’s track record as an employer will allow it to scale.
“Southwest is a pretty good place to work,” he said. “We have never had a layoff. They are good wages. It’s a good job. It’s good company. “
Watterson said Southwest expects the new increases will put them in third place behind United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines for mainland seat allocation to Hawaii.
Routes that return
Other airlines are also responding to Hawaii’s improving tourism market – albeit less dramatically.
United spokeswoman Maddie King said the airline is expected to be back in service 95% of its June 2019 schedule by June.
United currently has 200 weekly flights from mainland USA to Hawaii. In June, King said the number would increase to 272 weekly flights.
She said United operated 19 routes from hub airports to Hawaii in May, including new routes from Orange County to Honolulu. In June, United will increase the number to 21 routes, including new routes from Newark, New Jersey, to Maui and Chicago to Kona, she said.
“Since the islands reopened to tourism in October, we have recovered quickly from about 50% of our schedule to 82% in May,” said King. “We’ve added three brand new routes (Santa Ana-Honolulu, Newark-Maui, and Chicago-Kona) and increased Denver to Honolulu and Denver to Maui up to twice a day from May.”
Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said in June 2019 that Hawaiian operated 27 daily flights each way between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii, while an average of 184 daily flights operated to neighboring islands and more than seven international flights operated daily.
“June will see an average of 32 daily flights each way between the US mainland and Hawaii, including our new Honolulu-Austin, Orlando and Ontario routes and expanded non-stop services between Maui and Phoenix, Las Vegas and Long Beach,” said Da Silva. “Within the state, we will have around 135 flights connecting the islands every day.”
Da Silva added that Hawaiians guests continue to enjoy competitive rates and other perks like free meals. “We are no stranger to competition and – as Hawaii’s home airline – we continue to focus on safely reopening our state to travel, getting our local economy going again and welcoming both visitors and Kamaaina with our unique hospitality,” he said.
Alaska Airlines spokesman Daniel Chun said the airline also plans to increase service beyond the 26 daily flights it now offers from seven west coast cities to four islands.
“Starting next week, we will be back to pre-COVID levels with 29 daily flights for the summer travel season,” said Chun. “While we’ve been working to rebuild our Hawaii network since the pandemic began, we’ve added a new non-stop service from Los Angeles to Lihue and Kona.”
Prior to the pandemic, some Hawaiian passenger feeder markets had too much airline capacity. However, Watterson said he expected Southwest’s new service to strike a balance.
While Southwest isn’t the largest airline for seat share in Hawaii, Watterson is the largest airline in the mainland according to customers.
“I think the market will eventually even out as the airlines decide over time what is important to them,” he said. “Of course we’ve put down what we think is important, and we think these markets are well balanced in terms of customer demand for Hawaii. We are very optimistic in Hawaii. “