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Southwest Airlines joins others in making cuts to Hawaii service

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM 
                                A flight arrivals monitor showed a slew of canceled flights at the airport in Honolulu on Wednesday.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    A flight arrivals monitor showed a slew of canceled flights at the airport in Honolulu on Wednesday.

Southwest Airlines is among the last of the carriers to announce flight reductions for Hawaii, which relies almost exclusively on airlift to bring visitors to the tourism-dependent state.

The carrier is slated to announce today that it will temporarily suspend its new Kona to Kahului route, which started in January, and cut the rest of its Hawaii interisland service in half. From April 5 to the beginning of May, the carrier will cut service from four times daily to two times daily between Honolulu and Kona, Lihue and Hilo. The carrier will reduce its six times daily service between Honolulu and Kahului to three times.

It’s also going to pare down its trans-Pacific service from a dozen flights a day leaving California and a dozen flights leaving Hawaii to two flights a day between Honolulu and Oakland.

The move, characterized as an over-investment, is designed to fund and fuel Southwest’s interisland service. Southwest has to bring planes to Hawaii to maintain its interisland service.

Southwest President Tom Nealon told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an exclusive interview Wednesday that the carrier would be making network schedule reductions of another 20% to 23% throughout the night and morning. The cuts, which are on top of an earlier 7.5% or so reduction, essentially bring the new coronavirus-inspired reductions to 30% across Southwest’s entire network.

Nealon said Southwest was “very committed to continuing to serve Hawaii,” but would “have to reduce Hawaii, just like every other piece of the network.”

But Nealon said Southwest’s plans include continuing to try to serve every station on its Hawaii network.

“Interisland travel really is a vital service at this point whether it is medical supplies or people getting back and forth to doctors,” Nealon said. “Don’t forget we have 350 employees that are on the island and about half of those are very recent hires —they’re local, so we want to protect them.”

Maintaining interisland service also is competitively important to Southwest, which challenged Hawaiian Airlines’ long-standing interisland monopoly last year.

Nealon said during Southwest’s first year in Hawaii, it carried over 3 million passengers, across 18,000 flights, with 13,000 of those flights serving interisland customers, most of them local.

“They aren’t tourists, they are local passengers. So I think we are providing an incredible service to the community,” Nealon said. “I think we’ve also seen the Southwest effect has really kind of reared its head again. When Southwest enters a market, the market tends to grow and the prices tend to drop.”

Prior to the cuts, competition for the Hawaii market share had intensified between Southwest, Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines. Overcapacity in some routes had pushed load factors and prices lower, but demand was still strong enough for the carriers to keep defending their turf.

However, that’s changed with the 14-day quarantine order for visitors and returning residents that begins today, compounding the impacts from earlier stay-in-place orders for residents.

Daily passenger counts at Hawaii’s airports already had been dropping drastically even before the quarantine. On Tuesday, there were 4,131 arriving passengers, an 87% reduction from the same day last year when there were 32,330 passengers.

In mid-March, Hawaiian made a nearly 40% systemwide reduction and the cuts have only deepened since. On Wednesday, Hawaiian announced more reductions, but stayed focused on its critical flights and cargo services.

Starting Sunday, Hawaiian’s long-haul trans-Pacific network will include one daily nonstop flight between Honolulu and Los Angeles and San Francisco, and one weekly flight connecting Hawaii to its Pacific island neighbor of Pago Pago, American Samoa.

Still, the carrier is offering a robust interisland schedule of 41 daily round-trip flights. From Honolulu there will be 38 daily flights, including 13 to Maui, eight to Kona, seven to Kauai, six to Hilo, and two each to Lanai and Molokai. From Maui there will be one round-trip each to Hilo, Kauai and Kona in addition to Honolulu service.

Hawaiian also is expanding interisland cargo service. ‘Ohana by Hawaiian, the carrier’s all-cargo aircraft, began offering flights five days a week between Honolulu and Kahului and Kona.

Alaska Airlines also announced plans Wednesday to reduce its flight schedule for April and May by approximately 70% and other changes to conserve cash.

In a blog post, Alaska said, “Some regions we serve will see an even greater reduction of service, such as Hawaii, where the governor has issued a mandatory, 14-day self-isolation quarantine for all travelers entering the state.”

Southwest initially was slower to respond to dropping demand than its primary Hawaii competitors. The Federal Aviation Administration’s grounding of Boeing 737 Max planes already had slowed the carrier from reaching its Hawaii growth goals.

But Southwest’s latest reductions show how fast businesses must change directions to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Just two weeks ago, Hawaii wasn’t on the short list as Southwest evaluated what routes to cut.

While that’s changed, Nealon said he expects that the crisis “isn’t going to last forever.”

“We intend to come back strong and Hawaii is part of that come back,” he said.

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