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.