Hawaii is not on the list as Southwest Airlines, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, evaluates what routes to cut as part of its near-term response to the sharply falling travel demand that has accompanied the spread of the new coronavirus.
Southwest President Tom Nealon told the Star-Advertiser on Thursday during a phone interview that the carrier is considering adjustments, which would likely come over the next two weeks. Nealon didn’t identify which routes Southwest was eyeing, but said, “We’re obviously looking at the routes that are being most impacted by diminishing travel, and Hawaii is not clearly on that list.”
Nealon, who had been scheduled to talk at the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii CEO Leadership series Thursday morning, flew back to Dallas on Wednesday after the World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a pandemic and President Donald Trump’s cancellation of all U.S. travel to and from Europe. He had been in the Hawaiian Islands to mark the carrier’s first anniversary of Hawaii service on Tuesday.
“The entire industry has reeled,” Nealon said. “This is probably the most severe situation we’ve had in 30 years, certainly since 9/11. It’s unclear if we’ve bottomed out yet.”
Steven Swan, Southwest Airlines’ senior director, network strategy and airline partnerships, who took Nealon’s place at the chamber event, said the carrier had experienced a 20% systemwide drop in March and was looking at a financial hit of $200 million to $300 million just in March.
Southwest isn’t bleeding alone. On Thursday the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism reported that passengers coming to Hawaii decreased during the first 11 days of March by more than 8%. The drop included a roughly 33% decline in international passengers, while domestic passengers dropped by only 0.8%.
Other carriers already have slashed Hawaii service on the international side, and the state’s visitor industry is bracing for cuts in service to its larger domestic market.
In February, China Eastern Airlines ceased Shanghai- Honolulu operations. Hawaiian Airlines has suspended Seoul- Honolulu flights between March 2 and April 30. Hawaiian also is temporarily suspending three weekly flights between Tokyo’s Haneda and Kona, as well as the four flights per week from Haneda to Honolulu between March 28 and April 29. Delta Airlines reduced daily Nagoya-Honolulu and Osaka- Honolulu flights to three flights a week from March 7 to April 30. United Airlines is canceling Sunday flights from Guam to Honolulu between April 5 and 26.
Asiana Airlines also has suspended its Incheon-Honolulu flight from March 9-12, 16-18 and 24-25. Prior to its reduction, that flight, which has 300 seats, flew seven days a week.
Hawaiian Airlines President Peter Ingram told other members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness on Thursday that the carrier was “currently evaluating the need to adjust our North American schedule to better match supply and demand in the near term.”
Alaska Airlines spokesman Daniel Chun said the carrier is planning networkwide reductions to its schedule in late March and April.
“We’ll focus on routes with lower loads and where we can easily accommodate our guests to ensure they’ll still be able to get to their destination in a timely manner. We also plan to reduce flying in May by approximately 3% while we continue to monitor the situation,” Chun said.
A reason that Southwest isn’t currently reducing Hawaii service is that the Federal Aviation Administration’s grounding of Boeing 737 Max planes has slowed the carrier from reaching its Hawaii growth goals, which include adding new trans-Pacific routes when the more fuel-efficient aircraft are returned to service.
Also, Nealon said Southwest’s first year in Hawaii “exceeded every expectation that we had.”