Southwest Airlines is more than doubling its Hawaii trans-Pacific service starting June 6 — a move that will expand its statewide workforce by almost a third.
The Dallas-based carrier currently operates 16 round trips daily between Hawaii and the mainland. Its summer schedule, due out today, increases trans-Pacific offerings to 37 round trips, including direct flights between Las Vegas and Hawaii’s four major islands.
The carrier is adding new gateways in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas. It’s also adding more flights in San Diego and then an extra one in California cities Long Beach, San Jose and Oakland. It plans to maintain its interisland schedule of 34 to 36 departures a day.
Southwest President Tom Nealon, who spoke with the Star-Advertiser on Tuesday, said conditions are finally right for Southwest to execute its pre-pandemic plan for Hawaii.
“The leisure demand is coming back very strong. Demand for Hawaii is very, very solid. We have the lifts and we have the network to do it — so now is a great time,” Nealon said. “This is really just the culmination of what we thought we would be doing a year earlier.”
Southwest has had big dreams for Hawaii since entering the market on March 17, 2019.
But just days before its Hawaii launch, Southwest’s initial plan hit some turbulence with the grounding of Boeing 737 Max aircraft following fatal crashes on Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines.
Southwest’s aggressive Hawaii expansion was interrupted again by the pandemic, which saw travel demand plunge because of fear of COVID-19 and government containment measures.
Nealon recalls that he was in Hawaii to mark the carrier’s one-year anniversary and gear up for the next phase of its expansion. But noted that he was only on the ground for a day before he was called back to the company’s Texas headquarters.
“We had our (nationwide) bookings drop 92% overnight,” he said.
Southwest ultimately cut back from about 4,200 flights daily nationwide to 1,500 flights during the pandemic. However, Nealon said it continued to support its fledgling Hawaii market, including keeping open smaller new stations like Hilo.
“We didn’t stop, but had to pull back and defer for a year until things started to come back around,” he said.
Travel demand is now coming back in Hawaii and elsewhere — good news for Southwest, which reported first-quarter net income of $116 million. or 19 cents a share, which included $1.2 billion in payroll support.
Southwest reached an inflection point in mid-March where it began to see bookings throughout its network improve. It boosted its capacity by 50%, or about 1,000 daily departures. So far, it’s added more flights to Denver than Hawaii, but in percentage terms the planned Hawaii increases are greater.
Another major development for Southwest is that the carrier is in the final stages of obtaining ETOPS certification for its 737 Max 8 fleet. ETOPS stands for Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standard, and the airline needs this approval to fly extended overwater routes hours away from emergency airports.
Permission to fly the more fuel-efficient plane is critical to Southwest’s Hawaii expansion because the Max 8 has a lower operating cost and expands flying reach.
Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, told the Star-Advertiser on Tuesday that the expansion increases Southwest’s connections between Hawaii and the mainland to 45 U.S. cities. The carrier previously had connections between Hawaii and 23 cities that could take customers as far as Denver. Now, Southwest will have the connections to carry customers between Nashville, Tenn., and Hawaii.
“Opening up to Vegas and Phoenix gives us eastward connectivity that we didn’t have before,” Watterson said. “We’ll have multiple gateways in which you can do a daytime connection and still get home without a red-eye (overnight flight).”
The next challenge for Southwest in Hawaii is making sure its expansion is well received when hostility toward tourism has begun to emerge. During the pandemic, Hawaii residents got a taste of less-crowded islands, and some of them liked it, especially those who live near hot spots that were grappling with tourism before the visitor industry shutdown.
Southwest is known for lower fares. That’s caused some critics to speculate that the carrier is at odds with the state’s focus on boosting tourism revenue by increasing visitor spending rather than arrivals.
Nealon said the way he sees it, customers “aren’t paying as much for their ticket, which means they have more money in their pocket.”
Southwest also carries a large portion of loyalty customers who are fairly affluent on its Hawaii routes, he said.
Watterson added, “Just because we don’t stick it to the customer with high prices, you might assume it’s cheap customers. No, it’s customers that appreciate a low fare and a high-quality product. That’s what we are bringing and we think that’s a customer that would be a good fit with Hawaii.”
Moreover, Southwest said its expansion will put money into the local economy by creating jobs. During this phase, the carrier will add 100 people to its 322-person Hawaii workforce. To apply, visit swa.is/HawaiiHiring.
Companies across the nation and in Hawaii have reported pandemic-related hiring challenges. While the economy is picking up, some workers are afraid to return to their jobs. In some cases, generous federal pandemic-assistance has created a disincentive to go back to work.
Nealon said he’s optimistic that Southwest’s track record as an employer will allow it to scale up.
“Southwest is a pretty good employer,” he said. “We’ve never had a layoff. It’s good wages. It’s good work. It’s a good company.”
Watterson said Southwest expects the new increases will put them in the No. 3 spot behind United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines for seat share from the mainland to Hawaii.
Other carriers also are responding to Hawaii’s improving tourism market — albeit less dramatically.
United spokeswoman Maddie King said by June the carrier expects to be back to operating 95% of its June 2019 schedule.
United currently operates 200 weekly flights from the mainland U.S. to Hawaii. In June, King said the count will increase to 272 weekly flights.
She said United was operating 19 routes in May to Hawaii from hub airports, including new service from Orange County to Honolulu. Come June, United will up the count to 21 routes, including new Newark, N.J., to Maui and Chicago to Kona routes, she said.
“Since the islands reopened to tourism in October, we’ve recovered quickly, bouncing from roughly 50% of our schedule to 82% in May,” King said. “We’ve added three brand new routes (Santa Ana-Honolulu, Newark-Maui and Chicago-Kona) and increased Denver to Honolulu and Denver to Maui to up to two times daily starting in May.”
Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said in June 2019 that Hawaiian was operating 27 daily flights each way between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii, while averaging 184 daily neighbor island flights and more than seven international flights daily.
“In June, we are scheduled to operate, on average, 32 daily flights each way between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii, including our new routes of Honolulu-Austin, Orlando and Ontario, and expanded nonstop services connecting Maui with Phoenix, Las Vegas and Long Beach,” Da Silva said. “Within the state, we will offer about 135 daily flights connecting the islands.”
Da Silva added that Hawaiian’s guests continue to enjoy competitive fares and other amenities like complimentary meals. “We are no strangers to competition and – as Hawaii’s hometown airline – remain focused on safely reopening our state to travel, getting our local economy restarted, and welcoming back both visitors and kamaaina with our signature hospitality,” he said.
Daniel Chun, spokesman for Alaska Airlines, said the carrier also is planning to increase service beyond the 26 daily flights that it now offers from seven West Coast cities to four islands.
“Starting next week, we’ll be back up to near pre-COVID flight levels with 29 daily flights for the summer travel season,” Chun said. “As we work to rebuild our Hawaii network since the start of the pandemic, we’ve added new nonstop service from Los Angeles to both Lihue and Kona.”
Prior to the pandemic, there was too much airline capacity in some of Hawaii’s passenger feeder markets. However, Watterson said he expects that Southwest’s new service will find balance.
While Southwest isn’t the biggest carrier for seat share in Hawaii, Watterson said that it is the biggest airline on the mainland as far as customers carried.
“I think the market will eventually be in balance as airlines decide what’s important to them over time,” he said. “Obviously we’ve put down what we think is important to us, and we feel these markets are well balanced as far as customer demand for Hawaii. We’re very bullish on Hawaii.”