Southwest Airlines will have completed its anticipated build-out of neighbor island flights come January with the carrier’s next big Hawaii growth spurt expected to focus on new trans-Pacific service.
Earlier this month Southwest Airlines announced plans to aggressively expand service to the Hawaiian Islands in January, more than doubling the number of its interisland seats and increasing its trans-Pacific seat capacity by 50%. The new Hawaii service will give Southwest customers daily access to 18 unique departures and 3,150 one-way seats between three California cities and four Hawaii airports. It also brings Southwest’s daily interisland routes to 34 unique departures offering 5,950 one-way seats across five Hawaii airports, which completes the majority of Southwest’s planned interisland expansion, said Southwest Airlines spokesman Brad Hawkins.
“Interisland is now built to a place where we are ready to watch it mature and to continue servicing travelers within the state,” Hawkins said Tuesday.
Since Southwest entered Hawaii’s interisland market, airline analysts and visitor industry officials have been closely monitoring the effect interisland flights will have on Hawaiian Airlines, which had enjoyed a monopoly since the November 2017 shutdown of Island Air. The interisland market proved too tough for Aloha Airlines, which stopped flying in 2008, and go!, which ended Hawaii operations in 2014.
Despite some delays in its planned expansion, Southwest has realized strong demand for Hawaii service. Still, it’s a significantly smaller player in the isles than Hawaiian, which flies over 260 daily flights systemwide, including between 160 and 180 flights per day between the islands, based on the season. Hawaiian’s Boeing 717 planes have 128 seats, so that’s between 20,480 and 23,040 seats per day, depending on the time of year.
“So many people tell us they feel as if they are already in Hawaii the moment they step on board our aircraft, and it’s really true. That’s an enormous advantage. We also have a great, fuel-efficient fleet, a punctual operation and a robust neighbor island schedule,” Hawaiian spokeswoman Ann Botticelli said. “So, all the pieces are already in place for us to meet any competition that comes our way. We’ve served Hawaii for 90 years, and we look forward to doing it for another 90 years and beyond.”
There’s been limited growth in Hawaiian’s mature neighbor island service over the past several years as Hawaiian has added more nonstop service between the West Coast and the neighbor islands. It now offers nonstop service to Hawaii from 13 mainland gateway cities — more than any other U.S. carrier. But Hawaiian saw reduced Big Island demand last year in the aftermath of heightened volcano activity.
Southwest’s next phase of Hawaii growth will center on the trans-Pacific — its key market all along. Airline experts say that will have to suffice for now since the carrier can’t expand interisland any further without a Hawaii-based crew.
Further inroads into California by Southwest will spark more competition with Alaska Airlines, which began serving Hawaii in 2007 and was poised to fill the void in the California-Hawaii market created by the bankruptcies at ATA and Aloha airlines. Currently, Alaska offers the most daily flights to Hawaii from West Coast states (California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska) of any carrier. In that market, Alaska averages 29 daily flights on 30 routes, serving four islands.
“In addition to our robust nonstop network between Hawaii and the West Coast, we operate connecting routes to dozens of additional destinations throughout North America enabled by our extensive network and overnight flights,” said Alaska spokesman Daniel Chun.
Southwest’s future trans-Pacific expansion into Hawaii is limited by its labor contracts, which don’t allow for late-night “red-eye” flights, and by the constraints of its Boeing 737-800 planes, which can’t fly as far as its more efficient Boeing 737 Max planes. Unfortunately for Southwest, its Max planes have been grounded since March when the Federal Aviation Administration banned the aircraft in reaction to earlier deadly airplane crashes on other carriers in Indonesia and Ethiopia. So far, the FAA hasn’t provided a timeline for when the aircraft could return to flying, although Boeing has suggested October.
The Max delays have given Southwest’s competitors Hawaiian and Alaska some breathing room. However, the closer the Max situation gets to normal, the more the stakes will intensify. After all, Alaska already had been grappling with Hawaiian’s move into thinner California markets like San Jose and Oakland since deploying its more efficient A321neo aircraft. And, Hawaiian had posted the largest stock market drop among U.S. airlines during the past year in part because of uncertainty over how Southwest might change its competitive landscape.
But Andrew Watterson, Southwest executive vice president and chief revenue officer, said in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser earlier this month that the carrier has plans to bring the Max 8 and lighter Max 7 planes to Hawaii. And, adding “red-eyes” are on the carrier’s road map for “several years into the future.”
There are roughly 17 cities Southwest serves west of the Rockies that it hasn’t connected Hawaii to yet that could become possible on either a Max 8 or Max 7. They include San Francisco, Burbank, Los Angeles, Ontario, Long Beach and Orange County, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Seattle and Spokane, Wash.; Boise, Idaho; Reno and Las Vegas, Nev.; Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Denver; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Salt Lake City.
Watterson said Southwest’s coming expansion plans for Hawaii will first take care of California, which offers connecting opportunities from Phoenix, Las Vegas and Denver.
“Once we see what California does, then we’ll see if we want to go a little bit further inland and offer other nonstop service from those origins. But really it’s kind of a wait-and-see for us at the moment,” Watterson said.
Southwest’s upcoming Hawaii service in 2020:
>> Service between Sacramento, Calif., and Honolulu; Oakland, Calif., and Kona; and San Jose, Calif., and Lihue
>> Service between Honolulu and Lihue, Honolulu and Hilo as well as between Kona and Kahului
>> Service between Oakland and Lihue, as well as San Jose and Kona
Expected in early 2020
>> Service between Hawaii and San Diego