Southwest Continues to Slowly Trickle Out Details of Hawai’i Flying


I can’t decide whether to be annoyed or just plain impressed at how much Southwest has drawn out the announcement of its coming service to Hawai’i. There has been a faint trickle of information that has been released ever-so-slowly over the last several months. Most of it hasn’t been worth talking about, but I think there’s finally enough meat on the bone to write this post. In particular, Southwest’s announcement that it will do some interisland flying is worth a closer look.

If you think I’m exaggerating about just how slowly info has dripped out, consider this:

  • Last year, Southwest was going to make an announcement in Hawai’i, but that was scrubbed at the last minute. Still, word of the visit to Hawai’i made the rounds quickly and speculation began.
  • In October 2017, Southwest announced it would work on ETOPS certification and fly to Hawai’i. Tickets would go on sale sometime in 2018. Flights would be operated by 737-800s to start, but eventually MAX 8s would take over.
  • In March 2018, Southwest said it had received a permit to operate flights at Honolulu.
  • In April 2018, Southwest said its first destinations in Hawai’i would be the four biggest airports: Honolulu, Kahului, Kona, and Lihu’e.
  • In May 2018 (last week), Southwest said the initial mainland cities to receive Hawai’i flights would be San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Diego. It also snuck in that it would fly interisland flights.

Whew, that’s a lot of different announcements, and we still don’t know all that much. Sure, we know which cities will receive flights, but we don’t know which exact routes will operate. (Southwest said 4 points on either side of the Pacific but it didn’t say it would connect them all.) We also don’t know anything about frequency or actual times. We still don’t know when flights will go on sale, nor do we know when flights will start. I almost didn’t bother writing about this at all until we had more concrete detail, but that last nugget about interisland flying changed that.

The details about mainland – Hawai’i flying are entirely unsurprising. I assumed Oakland would be first, and I figured San Diego wouldn’t be far behind. Sacramento and San Jose are also something most expected would come at some point. Some may be dismayed to see that there’s no LA flight, but that’s not really all that shocking. LA has a lot of service already, and Southwest is bursting at the seams there. Once all the gates open up in Terminal 1, I would think LA might make the cut.

I’ll be particularly curious to see how these flights are scheduled. Southwest still doesn’t fly redeyes, so the typical West Coast-Hawai’i pattern will likely prevail. Look for morning flights west and afternoon returns. But I’ll be watching to see if they push those flights a bit later in the morning to allow for sufficient connections to come in. I’d particularly expect to see that in Oakland. That being said, these flights would then get back to the West Coast too late to make connections, and that’s an issue.

There is a solution here, and that’s related to the strangest part of Southwest’s announcement: interisland flying. In that case, you could see airplanes come in at various times of day and stay overnight with short hops before going back. But there remain a great numbers of questions regarding how this will play out. From the way it was worded, it sounds like interisland flying will not start immediately, but it will ramp up over time.

Today, interisland flying is almost entirely the domain of Hawaiian Airlines. Sure, there are a couple of 9-seater operations flying, but those aren’t really competition. Island Air was the last attempted competition, but that folded last year. With no competition, you’d think Southwest might believe there’s a chance to come in with lower fares and disrupt the status quo, but I’m not so sure. Advance purchase fares tend to be a bit higher than you might expect to see (though not egregiously-so), but walk-up fares are often low. And Hawaiian is one formidable competitor.

Flying within Hawai’i is like taking the bus. Other than a turbulent ferry between Maui and Lana’i, the islands are only connected by plane. That means flying is a way of life. To adequately serve the islands, Hawaiian has had to pour in a ton of service. From Honolulu to Kahului alone, Hawaiian flies 27 flights a day beginning at 5:06am and ending with the last departure at 10:05pm. Hawaiian knows the community, has the relationships, and is good at doing its job, to say the least. I think if Southwest tried to compete with that, it would be slaughtered.

Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like that’s what Southwest wants to do. I spoke with Brad Hawkins, spokesperson for Southwest, and he confirmed that Southwest isn’t looking to have a separate interisland fleet (it’ll just use the same airplanes that come in from the mainland), nor is it going to open a crew base. Those two pieces alone confirm that this won’t be a massive business schedule.

That is encouraging, because Southwest doesn’t have the right airplane to efficiently fly that kind of interisland schedule. Hawaiian’s 128-seat 717s are the perfect airplane for that market. Southwest will be operating 175-seat 737-800s/MAX 8s, and that’s too many seats. Plus, the 737 with its CFM engines have proven to be a bad airplane for really quick turns the way Hawaiian can run them.

The extremely short duration of each flight, the quick turns, and the climate in Hawai’i all combine to make for a tough environment. I seem to recall when Aloha first started running 737-300s, it had engine overheat problems. It eventually settled back on the old 737-200s since those worked just fine with their old Pratt & Whitney engines. I doubt the situation is much better today even with newer versions of the same engine.

So what kind of interisland service are we looking at? Brad said, “we’ll be a long-term player, and we will offer meaningful and relevant service.” It won’t be a full business schedule, but it could still be a significant capacity dump.

This will definitely mean lower fares in the short run as Southwest tries to buy its way into the market and fill up its airplanes, so that’s not bad for consumers. But Hawaiian is still much better equipped to win this war. Southwest is going to have a find a way to win on something other than just price for this to be successful. Certainly the no bag fee thing is one angle it can take, especially for the locals who buy things on O’ahu and then fly it back home. But depending upon what kind of service Southwest brings, Hawaiian may just decide to drop its own fee. Many others have tried to best Hawaiian before, and it hasn’t ended well. But then again, Southwest is unlike any other airline that has tried to fly these routes before, so I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

I’m sure we’ll talk about this again when we have more info. Maybe after the next couple announcements, we’ll have enough to get a real sense of Southwest’s plans.

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55 comments on “Southwest Continues to Slowly Trickle Out Details of Hawai’i Flying

  1. I suppose it depends on the routes and connections (Capt. Obvious) but not having to transfer to HA could be a benefit. I usually fly DL in to HNL and switching to HA is a long walk, usually with a big bag, to get to the other islands. (If only there were beds on DL to the other islands.) So not having to deal with bags and staying in the same terminal, or even on the same plane to continue on to OGG or LIH could be a great thing.

    1. Southwest doesn’t have beds anywhere. So that isn’t going to help you on the long flight, and connecting from DL presumably still is a problem for interlining your bags (don’t think WN interlines with anyone).

    2. All the cities that WN are looking to fly to Hawaii from already have service from AS. Three of them (all but SMF) have AS service to all four Hawaiian airports that WN wants to fly to. So, for people in these cities, WN will not add anything that doesn’t already exist.

    3. I connected at HNL from HA to HA and it was still a long walk – planes that will turn around and go back to the mainland require a gate that’s behind USDA Ag Inspection, whereas interisland flights don’t.

  2. Delta, American and United all fly directly to the neighbor islands, although not from every city. Passengers do not have to deal with Honolulu if they can make the schedules and connections work.
    And, Southwest will have to fly inter island if they hope to attract passengers who want to go beyond Honolulu. Because Southwest doesn’t have agreements with other airlines, passengers who want to go to the outer islands would have to do it on multiple tickets, generally with no fare break, then retrieve checked luggage from Delta in the overseas terminal and then schlep it to the inter island terminal: and then the reverse coming back. But CF is absolutely right about Hawaiian. It is an 800 ton gorilla that has a long history and lots of loyalty in the islands. And, something CF didn’t mention, is that Hawaiian already flies from/to the California cities Southwest has chosen, with much larger aircraft.

    1. The thing is that there are basically only four destinations in the islands; it’s not that hard to serve all four of them from the mainland. And three smaller destinations isn’t really enough to serve a connections-focused transit operation, especially not when the plane serving the interisland feed is the same size as the one from the mainland.

      If WN doesn’t have the frequency or the loyalty to grab much local traffic, to fill HNL-other island flights, they’d need to take traffic from four or so mainland flights (OAK/SJC/SMF/SAN-HNL) and distribute it amongst three or so interisland flights (HNL-LIH/OGG/KOA), all without cannibalizing their non stops to the other islands. And the schedules to and from the mainland would have to align to make connections possible. I guess some of the traffic will be WN customers who visit multiple islands, but I just don’t see how the numbers or logistics add up.

      1. United actually serves Hilo (as well as Kona) from Los Angeles. Until recently, it flew to Hilo from San Francisco as well.

  3. I don’t see how a 737 from a new entrant could possibly compete with HA. If a new entrant were to have a shot, I’d think it would be on something like a Q400 or smaller. But of course that wouldn’t be utilization flying; it would obviously require a separate island-based fleet and crews.

    The airline that seems most affected by Southwest’s route choices is obviously Alaska, which has built a nice niche flying all over the islands from secondary California airports with little head to head competition.

    The majors all have partnerships with Hawaiian for interisland flying; Southwest does not and cannot (since they don’t do partnerships). I wonder if that’s a factor in them thinking they need interisland flying themselves?

    Couldn’t WN schedule later flights to Hawaii, remain overnight, and have early morning flights back to the mainland? That would enable connections in both directions on the mainland end. Since their aircraft have to remain overnight somewhere, it makes more sense for them than for the other mainland-based airlines. Main drawback is customers may not love paying for an extra night in accommodation at both ends of a trip.

    1. Especially given WN’s recent issues. There may be quite a few people nervous about flying that long over the ocean on WN. Having said that, I think the flights will be a success in the long run.

      1. Assuming no further incidents, the window incident will be soon forgotten. As I mentioned when Allegiant was the topic, the general public tends to both have very short memories and be extremely forgiving. Especially when low fares and/or their little trips to the beach are on the line.

    2. Alex – All good points. Yes, Alaska is going to feel fare pressure on this one since they have a ton of overlap. Alaska is already bulking up to fight, as you’ll hear in tomorrow’s post. But I don’t see Southwest pushing Alaska out. They may just need to get used to a lower fare environment.

      As for Southwest flying interisland, I don’t think the lack of partnerships matters. I mean, they can still get people from the mainland to the big 4 airports nonstop. So this either has to be about utilization or it has to be some side project where the airline thinks it can make a dent in Hawaiian’s monopoly.

      Yes, Southwest could schedule later flights to Hawai’i and then keep the airplane overnight. The problem is those early morning departures from the islands don’t tend to do all that well. Delta/United/American/Hawaiian each fly it from Honolulu to LA and United does it from there to SF, but that’s really it. That’s more of interest to business travelers in Hawai’i than to tourists. Southwest is already going to have to go in to compete on price. I’m not sure they want to have to lower prices even further with undesirable schedules.

  4. Southwest always has, always can, and always will win any war it chooses to start. They have the clout, brand recognition, size, and scope to run any airline out of any city they want if they so choose. If they were able to literally drive USAir(ways) out of business in both the West and East Coast 20+ years ago, imagine what they could do now. I don’t see how anyone or anything really could stop Southwest. They are that powerful. The question is really only one of what battles they choose. Anything they do walk away from, it’s by choice. Not because they had their lunch eaten by someone else.

    1. Matt D – So you’d argue that any battle Southwest has lost has been entirely because they didn’t want to bother to continue fighting? Sure, fighting against big and bloated USAir was like shooting fish in a barrel. But look at what happened when it moved in on Philly? US Airways won that one handily and Southwest retreated to have a much smaller presence than it originally envisioned. You can also look at Phoenix. Eventually America West/US Airways/American learned how to compete with Southwest and thrive. That didn’t push Southwest out of the market, but it did prevent Southwest from “winning.” Southwest is not the same nimble airline it once was, and Hawaiian is much more nimble than you’d expect from legacy airline. I still put my money on Hawaiian if there has to be a single winner.

    2. They did not win against Alaska when the tried to start a focus city in Seattle years ago. They also drew down in ATL after they merged with AirTran and mother D decided to entrench. Alaska and Delta did eat their lunch in SEA and ATL and that is why they drew down. That’s business and it’s wise to cut off a toxic asset. SWA is no longer the low fare leader and other carriers have lower CASM. With that said, they do offer a smart, hassle free, flexible product which I find a good value.

  5. I see the B37M becoming the Hawaii jet of choice for WN in the next 5 years. 149 seats, more range, you could conceivably open their middle America “hubs” direct to Hawaii. For sure DEN & PHX, even DAL would be attainable for the B37M even with ETOPS. B37M would also be better for interisland service. Fewer seats, better short field performance. Less gas.

    1. Alex – By B37M, you mean the 737-MAX 7? I think that’s generally too small. With the kind of revenue profile you have in Hawai’i, you want bigger airplanes to spread those costs around. Phoenix should be doable on the MAX 8, I believe. Not sure what works in Denver, but that’s a challenge outside of the 757 in general I think. The MAX 7 might be attractive for a place like Orange County if it could actually work, but the ideal markets for that airplane are few and far between.

      1. CF can you explain that because your post lauds the 128 seat 717 as perfect for the market and the 175 seat Max 8 as too big. Max 7, 149 seats, 3900 nm of range, it the perfect long, thin jet, wirh way better economics than a 717.

        1. Alex – I don’t think I’m following. The 717 is the perfect airplane for interisland, but it’s certainly not good for long, thin routes. The MAX 7 might be ok for long, thin routes, but I wouldn’t think these would be all that thing (Denver, Phoenix, etc).

  6. WN would have to rely on mainland tourists to fly them in Hawaii who know them more.
    Locals know HA as their airline and have or know people who have or do work for them which makes HA family to them.

    1. Of course, the same is true of every other mainland-based airline, and they all do fine (more or less) to Hawaii. Tourists flying to Hawaii is a bigger market than locals who are loyal to HA. It’s other Hawaii-based airlines that have died or retreated from Hawaii, not mainland-based airlines (except Allegiant).

    1. Excellent point! Maybe… Bombardier C-Series? The C-Series is much more capable in terms of range and other characteristics, I’m mostly referring to the comparable seating capacity.

      1. That occurred to me …. then I tried to imagine Boeing’s reaction (does everyone remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail?):
        “‘C-Series’ is the word the Knights of Boeing cannot bear to hear!”

    2. On top of the C-Series (as others have pointed out), Embraer’s largest E2 is an option, too. You can bet HA will at least make it SEEM like they’re seriously considering both to get the best deal possible.

      Of course, if HA’s also looking at the CS300 to do flying to the mainland, then just having the commonality would put the Canadians ahead in the running.

  7. I see Southwest using their traditional model of flying where SMF-HNL includes a stop in KOA or OGG. Some passengers get on/off and the flight continues. This fulfills their “interisland” flying and positions their planes for better returns to the mainland

  8. Not having any type of premium cabin, I think will hurt WN’s Hawaii flights in the long run. I don’t think airlines get a ton of margin on West Coast to Hawaii flights. OAK to HNL on HA leaving this Thursday coming back Tuesday 4/10-4/15 is $416 total price round trip. That’s fine when you’re flying DAL to BUR, but not on a flight of that stage length with no premium cabin to bolster PRASM. Especially since WN is probably going to have to start with sub $200 OW fares to gain a foothold.

    If WN wants to add some HA flights to offer a competitive vacation destination for their business fliers that’s fine, but I’d stick with just a flight or two to HNL and OGG. And I wouldn’t touch inter-island flights with a 1,000 foot pole.

    1. Nick – Well May is low season in Hawai’i, so it’s not a surprise to see it cheap. Look this summer and it’s at least 50% more if not higher. There is room for Southwest during the summer without question. In the winter, it’ll be thinner but I’m sure there’s still room for it to work. I’m just not sure how well it will work, nor am I sure which routes will work.

      1. It looks like there is some room at the peakest of the peak times, but assuming a new entrant would lower fares across the board, running year round service would seem destined to at best break even, and inter island flying destined to set money on fire.

        I would just think WN would be able to find some other routes for those planes that will make more money overall.

        Unless they are starting HA knowing it will lose money, but don’t want to lose customers in the aggregate to the AS/VX combo increasing their California flying.

  9. Hi Cranky,

    Hawaii residents are salivating over the idea that WN will offer interisland service, but as you point out, they are going to be disappointed.  Clearly it would not be possible to have a schedule even remotely competitive with HA without a dedicated interisland fleet and a maintenance facility to support it.  I am looking for a round robins and tag ends that will amount to a couple round trips HNL-OGG and maybe one each to LIH and KOA.  Timing for the local market is likely to be problematic.  I don’t imagine that HA is exactly shaking in their boots.

    1. Jin – Agreed. They love to hate Hawaiian because there is no other option, but the reality is that Hawaiian’s fares aren’t unreasonable and they provide amazing service. Incredible frequency with excellent punctuality.
      People talk a big game every time competition comes in, but then Hawaiian will match fares and the new entrant loses. I remember people were excited about go! (despite its incredibly shady entry into the market), because they wanted cheap fares. That didn’t go anywhere.

      I would be curious to hear what you think about the bag fee. I know that’s something that bugs locals. Hawaiian may want to consider doing something like Alaska and its Club 49 which will get rid of bag fees for locals.

      1. Get the Hawaiian MasterCard, get a free bag. Maybe not worth when flying once a year, but otherwise if I flew to HNL once a quarter to shop the big stores, that is what I would do.

        I do like the Club 49 suggestion, too.

      2. Hi CF,

        I kind of doubt that HA will change the bag fee.  My expectation is for only a few round trips that will probably be better timed for visitors than for locals.  Losing a few passengers over bag fees likely wouldn’t offset the loss from doing away with them across the board.  And if you carry the HA branded credit card, as I do, you get relief from bag fees anyway.

        At the end of the day, HA runs a very convenient and reliable interisland operation.  I don’t see WN making much of a dent in that.

        1. Jin – Well, I wouldn’t expect that to be the initial reaction, but it’s something that can be used as a lever if Southwest comes in with an aggressive schedule or if Hawaiian sees itself losing ground. I imagine that’s one area to watch closely.

    2. The one time I flew HA, I thought it was not a very good experience. I thought the bag fees were exorbitant for such short flights and the seats were extremely tight on the 717. DL has 110 seats on their 717s, while HA crams 128 into the same space. Yuck. It’s also the only airline to ever have weight my carry on bag.

      After that experience and the fact that you can no longer show up right before an inter-island flight like pre-9/11, I have decided to visit only one island at a time.

  10. Pretty amazing, in one lifetime, heard of people flying a PanAm Clipper or a NW Boeing Stratocruiser to HNL, then we flew like we were in Heaven, on a stretch DC-8 or a 747. HA always seemed like a poor man’s sub-major, while Aloha was the fun island airline. Then, comes the 737s from the Mainland to everywhere. Then, they say, here comes Southwest, like they said it would have a hub in Baltimore…oh…they do? Now, WN to Hawaii? Like they’ll soon be opening a hub in Iceland for their new European service?

  11. I wonder how much the SWA Vacations arm lobbied for inter-island service so that they will be able to sell multi-island packages.

  12. West coast to hawaii flights are perfect for tacking on one or two island hops when you look at it from a crewing perspective. WN can easily get at least one island hop if not two from the crew that originates in California. It’s probably really cheap to operate these flights for them and i’m sure they’ll be able to create a robust web of scheduling to overcome any engine issues from these short hops. They’ll certainly need longer than normal turn times for ETOPS checks as well which may help cool off the engines

  13. I still really don’t like flying 737s from the mainland to Hawai’i. I know it’s in its range, but there isn’t much to spare especially when you’re going to Hawai’i and there’s a stiff headwind. But, I’ve done it several times on AS and it’s been fine.

    1. If it didn’t go fine we wouldn’t be reading your post about it not going fine. Remember the logically fallacy of jumping off the roof of a hundred story building and thinking “Everything will be fine I just fell 99 stories and I’m still alive and healthy”

  14. How significant is freight revenue for the interisland flights? I know ocean shipping costs from the mainland to Hawaii are insanely expensive ($6,000 to ship a 40′ container from the West Coast to Honolulu all in, thanks Jones Act), but I’m curious as to whether Southwest might be able to at least fill up the cargo bays of its 737s, or if the interisland freight revenue for pax airlines is relatively insignificant and controlled mostly by the usual cargo airlines.

    1. How significant is freight revenue for passenger flights to/from Hawaii from the mainland. ?

      In the old days of wide body airplanes (DC-10, 747, etc.) flying to and from Hawaii, those planes carried lots of freight, pineapples, papaya’s, etc. back from the islands.

      Does the 737 have the space or weight ability to carry freight today, in either direction.

      Are there many (any) dedicated freight airplanes flying from the mainland to Hawaii now. ?

    2. Kilroy – There is a lot of freight flying between the islands, but I think most of it is handled by freighters. Companies like Aloha Air Cargo specialize in this.

  15. WN’s business model has always been to either dominate a market or serve it so superficially that they have a presence but don’t really try to push toward being one of the major carriers. The Hawaiian islands have LONG had abundant, cheap service and will continue to regardless of what WN does. Most major US airlines have large operations. What they don’t do -except for HA – is offer much interisland service.
    WN seems like it has no intentions to push to being a dominating force in the mainland to Hawaii market but wants to throw in that it will fly interisland service as something that distinguishes itself. Problem is that 737s are big and, as noted, WN would have to flood the market with flights in order to come close to matching HA’s schedules. Absent comparable or higher frequencies, people are not going to fly WN interisland other than for the potentially lower fares that they might offer but can’t without getting some premium revenue. Absent a significant presence in the interisland market, they are just another player to the mainland with some really cheap interisland flights – which does nothing for their bottom line.
    None of us seem to know what WN’s plans are but they sure seem so far to be making a lot of noise about a market that will be not much different than ATL or PHL – markets they have to serve but where they couldn’t really overcome more established players and so just fly there.

    Maybe I’m wrong but it has often been said that Southwest Airlines is really just a marketing company that happens to fly planes.

    Two years from now, their presence in Hawaii might well confirm if that is true based on all they have said so far about their proposed Hawaii service – which still is not possible until they get FAA ETOPS approvals.

    1. I wouldn’t say WN “just flies” to ATL. They have 125 flights a day, their 11th largest market based on daily flights, and fly almost 10 million people a year. They fly more passengers at ATL than SAN, SMF, or SJC.

      And WN is the largest player in California, so I’m sure they will have a decent frequent flyer base of Mainland flyers that can fill some of those interisland flights. I fly from SMF, and there are hundreds if not thousands of business travelers who do business runs down to Southern California that are itching to fly to Hawaii. With frequent flyer points and a companion pass, WN should easily beat out AS as the preferred airline in the 4 announced CA markets.

      1. except that after WN took AirTran, they handed BOTH their ATL market share *and* the 717s to DL on a silver platter in white gloves by a Savoy-trained butler

  16. I wonder how much of the traffic will be “paid” with Rapid Rewards miles. I could imagine a pretty substantial amount. Cashing in FF miles might also make an early morning eastbound departure more palatable, favoring a model where Southwest overnights the planes in Hawaii.

  17. As far as strategy goes, this is all about 2 things: staying dominant in California and Rapid Rewards. They are making a boatload of cash off RR, and having a place like hawaii for use your points will only make the card a more valuable commodity. And to fend off Alaska and others in CA, you have to be able to offer Hawaii as a destination. They are just looking for a niche, not domination.

  18. you’re assigning too much value into the “27x daily” that HA does between Oahu/HNL and Maui/OGG. That’s more a function of their seat count in their 717 since even an hourly flight offering from 5a to 10p is far less than 27x. put that in perspective, LGA-BOS/DCA/ORD are only about 14-17x depending on airline. No one in their right mind would proclaim biz pax in Hawaii are more time-sensitive than the NE corridor.

    Second is that inter-island pax has very large components of leisure, VFR, and communal traffic, which aren’t so time-sensitive that they must have a flight every 30 minutes. A decent offering at service launch could be 6x daily @ 7a 9a 11a 2p 4p 6p.

    That said, HNL-OGG is blocked gate-to-gate at barely 40 mins and flying time of just 25 mins, so quality of onboard-service is close to moot.

  19. sounds like most or every flight is going to triangulate, oak-hnl-ogg-oak, san-ogg-hnl-san etc., or whatever combinations; thus providing, sometimes on the same plane, and at worst from close by gates, one stop connecting to every island with no interlining of bag worries.

    Also sounds like WN isn’t too o worried about maintenance issues with their engines. (!!!!!)

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