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Friday, October 24, 2014         

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Isles within reach

Southwest Airlines is considering Hawaii routes as it expands its Boeing fleet

By Allison Schaefers

POSTED:

 / 2011Southwest Airlines' order of 20 long-range Boeing 737-800 jets makes routes to Hawaii a possibility for the popular carrier, which could in turn boost the islands' tourism industry. Southwest jets are shown on the tarmac at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Hawaii is still an option for Dallas-based discount carrier Southwest Airlines, and its partnership with Boeing, the maker of the jets Southwest would use to fly to the isles, is intact in the wake of a recent fuselage rupture.

Since last year, Southwest has had on order 20 Boeing 737-800 series jets, which are equipped to fly over water. The order, which brought service to Hawaii within the realm of possibility, is still in the works, Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said at a recent Society of American Business Editors and Writers spring conference in Dallas.

"We are an all-Boeing customer and we will remain so," Kelly said. "Boeing has always been there for Southwest Airlines."

Kelly said the longtime partners behaved responsibly following the in-flight fuselage rupture that forced the carrier's Boeing 737 to make an emergency stop on April 1 in Yuma, Ariz.

"If you look at history of aviation, air travel is extraordinarily safe," Kelly said.

Southwest's 737 fleet of 548 planes is constantly undergoing rigorous checks and inspections as directed by the FAA and Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, he said.

"While events are rare, I won't be satisfied until there are no events," Kelly said. "Everyone landed safety. I should pay tribute to our flight attendants and cockpit crew because they did an exceptional job."

In the aftermath of the Arizona incident, Southwest canceled approximately 300 flights and grounded some of its 737s as part of an investigation being led by the National Transportation Safety Board into the cause of the hole in the airplane.

"While there was some cost associated with this, it was not multimillions of dollars," Kelly said. "We were able to accommodate most customers."

As the company works with Boeing to ensure that the planes it flies and those that it has on order are safe, Hawaii tourism officials and visitor industry members continue to lobby for the carrier and others to add new routes to the isles.

Hawaii officials began talking with Southwest in 2008 after the abrupt shutdowns of ATA Airlines and Aloha Airlines significantly reduced the destination's capacity, said David Uchi­yama, vice president of brand management for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Prior to that, Southwest customers could redeem their reward miles for isle flights on ATA, Uchi­yama said.

"If you go back on the Southwest blog about four to five months after ATA went down, there was a lot of activity from people who wanted to fly to Hawaii," he said.

While Uchiyama said that Southwest is familiar with the strength of the Hawaii brand, the carrier has not revealed its plans for the isles.

"We have not made the decision to fly to Hawaii yet," Kelly said, "but one of the reasons that we ordered this series was to have the flexibility to consider flying to Hawaii."

The 737-800s would be "well suited" to long-haul Hawaii travel, Kelly said.

The 737-800s are expected to be delivered during the first or second quarter of 2012 and would need to earn over-water certification before they could be put into service, he said.

"When they will be ready, I really can't give a date," said Kelly.

On the whole, Southwest Airlines is doing well and expanding its reach. The airline, which carries more U.S. passengers than any other, saw its earnings rise to $459 million last year from $99 million in 2009. The company also is expected to close a $1.4 billion purchase of AirTran Airways in the next few weeks.

If Southwest offered service to Hawaii from some of the key cities that it currently serves, the isles could become better positioned to compete against the Caribbean and Mexico, said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Hawaii and French Polynesia.

The carrier's reputation as a low-cost carrier with good customer service also could motivate travelers to choose Hawaii, Vieira said.

"It is probably one of the better things that could happen to drive U.S. business to Hawaii, especially in light of where airfare is going," he said. "Customers like not having to pay extra for luggage."

Since Southwest is a popular brand with powerful marketing, its entry into Hawaii could strengthen tourism, said David Carey, president and CEO of Outrigger Enterprises Group. However, Southwest-related benefits only apply if the carrier adds seats on new or underserved routes to the market, he said.

Carey said Hawaii hotels could benefit from intense airline competition because it lowers prices to get to the destination and frees up seats so that customers can make last-minute decisions to come here.

However, everyone loses in the end if the destination cannot support the air capacity, he said.

"When we are looking at these low-cost carriers, it's with concern for our legacy carriers," Uchi­yama said. "If we can originate people out of new markets that we don't have saturation in and it creates new business for us, all can exist."

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The contributed to this report.






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