An Update on Southwest’s Hawai’i Plans

Southwest, Uncategorized

If you thought I was done with the Boyd Conference, you’re wrong.  I’m just slow.  While I was there, I had the chance to sit with Southwest EVP and Chief Revenue Officer Andrew Watterson. We talked about a variety of topics, but there were two that stood one.  One, the so-called “short-haul renaissance” is a topic of a future post.  Today, let’s talk about Hawai’i. 

Over time, Southwest has expertly dribbled out bit and pieces of information regarding its upcoming Hawai’i service.  The slow drip has given Southwest a silly amount of free press coverage… and now I’ll be doing the same.  There’s nothing earth-shattering here.  File this under “we’re still on track.”

Ticket Sales Still Expected By Year-End

If you recall Southwest said it would start selling tickets to Hawai’i by the end of 2018, but that didn’t mean it would actually fly this year. We’re in September, and so far, no tickets have been sold.  So will this still be happening as planned?

Andrew chose his words carefully when he said, “we have said we plan to be for sale by the end of this year.”  He’s sticking by that saying the plan hasn’t changed, but he added, “and if we’re fortunate to fly by the end of this year….”

Say what?  It’s already September, and Southwest still thinks it can fly by the end of the year?  Apparently it will if it can.  The airline is going through the ETOPS certification process so it can fly twin engine aircraft over the long stretch of water between California and Hawai’i.  This is a government process, and when approval comes is far from certain.  If the government gives Southwest the go-ahead, it will do a mid-schedule load and start flying quickly.  How quickly remains to be seen, but this won’t be a typical Southwest move of extending the schedule and then tacking Hawai’i on at the end.  It will happen fast.

As Andrew correctly notes, “nobody will remember the day we started, but they’ll remember we started poorly.”  In other words, if they publish a schedule and then ETOPS certification doesn’t come through in time, there will be a lot of angry people.  Southwest would rather just wait and then start flying quickly even though it won’t have a long booking window to prop up those early flights.

(As a side note, my suggestion to acquire DC-10s if ETOPS certification doesn’t come through was shot down.  Andrew prefers the L-1011.  Sadly, neither option seems feasible.)

A New Terminal Area in Honolulu

There has been a lot of discussion about Honolulu’s airport not having enough capacity during peak hours of the day, from about 11am to 2pm.  With Southwest not flying redeyes, it is going to need airport space during those peak hours, so what will the airline do?

Fortunately for Southwest, Island Air went under.  Island Air was building a ground-level concourse extension to the Diamond Head Concourse which wasn’t finished.  Southwest has decided to take that over and create its own gate area.

Andrew says “It’ll be the nicest part of the airport… new, ample bathrooms, a Starbucks, a Kona Brewing Company, nice seating. And it’ll have a walkway out to the airplanes with Diamond Head in the background.”  Passengers will board via ramps up to the aircraft.

No News on Interisland Flying

Since I know this question is going to come up in the comments, I figured I’d address it.  Southwest still has no news to report on its decision to also fly interisland services.  I’m expecting a handful of frequencies in key markets, so nothing like the half-hourly shuttles that you find on Hawaiian.  But of course, I could be totally wrong.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

Is Hawai’i Worth It?

I asked Andrew if he thought Hawai’i flying was still worth it looking back on what the airline has gone through.  After all, there are a lot of places where Southwest could have put those airplanes and other resources (including tech).  While there was zero chance he’d say “nah, we blew it,” I knew he’d give me some color on why he thought it was still worthwhile:

These are very big markets, and they’re very important to our California customers. Those are two good reasons to do it. It’s also quite high-priced. We fly from San Diego to Baltimore today, and that’s about the same distance as San Diego to Honolulu. The market fares are about a hundred bucks higher to Honolulu. That looks to us like a juicy fare. Oakland to Baltimore we fly; Oakland to Maui is about the same distance. That one is only $75 higher than the Baltimore fare but these are big markets, prices are high so it makes complete sense to add this to our California franchise.

The market dynamics are very different in these markets, of course.  Hawai’i has fewer cheap sale fares and fewer full fare business travelers.  It just sells a lot more in the middle than you’ll find in most markets.  But that didn’t seem to faze Andrew.  The average fare is still higher than other markets, and Southwest sees an opportunity.  But don’t overlook that first sentence about it being important to California customers.  Southwest is fighting off Alaska in California, and today, it can’t compete with Alaska’s Hawaiian network.  This will open up a new front in the war, for better or worse.

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47 comments on “An Update on Southwest’s Hawai’i Plans

  1. Why is ETOPS certification such a process? The 737’s going through the process have already been certified many times with other airlines…the airplane obviously has the technical capability. You would think once an aircraft type is certified, it would be fairly easy for an additional operator to become certified as well.

    1. As grichard mentioned, ETOPS certification involves both the aircraft and the airline. Even if other airlines already operate the same aircraft ETOPS, even if on similar routes, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy for anyone who owns the plane can do so as well. While I agree that WN certainly has the technical capability, there are a lot of maintenance, operations, and flying procedures and training that need to be developed and implemented.

      As much as I hate government red tape, and as frustrated as I’m sure WN is by the pace of the process, this makes sense to me. When an aircraft is expected to be able to reliably fly for several hours or more on a single engine, that’s a big deal and a potentially big risk that must be considered and managed carefully.

    2. FedEx is currently certifying the B767 for ETOPS. A frame that has been doing ocean crossings for a long time, with an operator who has been doing ETOPS ops for a long time. Still has to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

  2. The only thing I can foresee is that there is going to be an abundance of flying feathers and shreds of fabric (as in “losing one’s shirt”) in the airspace between the west coast and Hawaii. I sincerely doubt there’s a real need for Southwest to enter the market. The so-called Southwest Effect is based on getting people out of their cars and into Southwest’s seats, Unless they’re aware of some pent-up demand that’s just waiting for them to take advantage of, I suspect the demand is already being met. I’d be more optimistic if there wasn’t quite so much water between HNL and the west coast. On the other hand, anything can happen. It’ll be interesting to see where things stand five or 10 years from now.

    1. Re: DC-10’s, L 1011 flights by Southwest to Hawaii ? I would like to see some simple economic analysis for these old wide body planes, vs. the Southwest contemporary 737 series airplanes, including freight hauling ability. The comfort level on a wide body plane for a 5 hour flight, with reasonable seat pitch, (34 inches ?) is far greater than what is in the market today on all the 737’s currently flying to Hawaii.

      Alaska main cabin coach seat pitch is currently 31 to 32 inches, according to their website.

      United 737-800 main cabin coach seat pitch is 31 inches.

      United 737-800 main cabin Economy Plus seat pitch is 37 inches.

      Will Southwest have a ‘first class’ cabin to Hawaii ??

      1. Peter – No economic analysis is going to show a DC-10 with 34″ pitch being even remotely competitive to a 737 with 31 or 32″ pitch. Southwest is sticking with simplicity, keeping the same airplanes and same configuration it flies elsewhere. No First Class, no meals, none of that.

  3. If I lived on the West Coast and had some flexibility in taking time off, I’d be tempted to save some vacation time and money for a (relatively) last minute trip to Hawaii. Sounds like there may be some deals to be had if Southwest starts selling tickets to Hawaii only a few weeks before the flights actually start, and a promotion like, “$99 tickets to Hawaii” when Southwest opens the route would drive a lot of media coverage as well.

  4. Has JetBlue considered throwing their hat into the Hawaii ring? Or would that just be a massive waste of money for them?

    1. Matthew – JetBlue has said in the past that it’s not a priority. That’s good, because it has very little presence on the West Coast anyway and wouldn’t add much value by going into Hawai’i.

    2. Interesting question. Given that Hawaii is primarily a leisure market, if JetBlue were to try to serve Hawaii, I’d be curious to see if they would implement Mint on the routes, or else what they would offer for more premium options.

      I’m not very familiar with the Hawaiian market myself, but it’s fun to think about.

      1. JetBlue could add Mint, and it would lower the weight on the plan (passengers as well as associated cargo), but who would pay for the seats?

    3. Given that Hawaiian, a relatively close partner, flies to and presumably carries many connecting fliers from LGB, duplicating such a service on JetBlue metal in the absence of a JV would pose some interesting dynamics.

  5. WN’s engine failure/accident is bound to have impacted its ETOPS application esp. since there were also calls for a more in-depth review of WN’s relationship with the FAA. They will get their ETOPS certificate but it is wise to wait until it is approved before announcing schedules. Over-promising and not being able to deliver is a death warrant when trying to enter a new market, esp. since WN has hyped the addition of Hawaii to its network.

    It likely will be AS that will be most impacted by WN’s new Hawaii flights primarily because the two overlap in the large secondary airports on the west coast more than the big 3. Given AS’ efforts to get its profitability back up after the merger and AS’ expansion on the west coast, a delay in WN’s start of Hawaii service might be a good thing for lots of people in the short term but have little long-term impact on WN achieving what it is going to achieve regardless of the launch date. .

    1. Naw. Southwest has a reputation that’s pretty much air tight and bullet proof. Like Apple, Costco, or Facebook. Sure, they have their detractors and the occasional ‘oopsy-daisy’. But overall, ain’t ‘nufin’ gonna bring them down. Ever. They still have more or less favored status with the FAA and I fully expect them to get rubber stamped and approved with ETOPS.

      1. They should pay their maintenance employees what they deserve. SIX years no pay raise. And yes they could ground planes. Shame on SW for not recognizing the men and women that keep us safe. Record years of profit. Sad day for the founders of SW. Sure Herb and Colleen are heart broken.

      2. Please show us how to get “favored status with the FAA” and who has it.

        All airlines have to play by the same rules and the issue with WN’s ETOPS application is that they are pursuing what other airlines have had since the concept began. It isn’t an overnight process and it also isn’t a given that the FAA is just going to sign off on whatever WN presents to the FAA.

        and to Lisa’s comment below, it is worth noting that WN has the highest rate of maintenance outsourcing of the big 4 US airlines which means that the FAA is not just looking at what WN does but also the controls that WN has over its maintenance contractors. When you are two hours away from the nearest runway, EVERYTHING that has gone into maintaining an airplane matters.

        Finally, the 737MAX is still a relatively new plane to WN so WN is asking for approval to operate for the first time over the Pacific and with a new aircraft type’, all at the same time.

        WN will fly to Hawaii when the FAA is comfortable that WN’s competence in operating over vast stretches of water is done with all Ts crossed. And that is a very good standard to maintain not just for WN but for every airline.

      1. Anthony, so how much is a used A 340 these days. ? Lufthansa is currently operating them on their new San Diego to Frankfurt flight, non stop. That is an 11 hour + trip. I can’t quickly find how many A 340’s LH operates today. LH first flew the A 340 in March, 1993, source Wikipedia.

        Regarding the ETOPS issue, do you think anyone would be more ‘comfortable’ on a four engine plane, A 340, vs. a two engine plane, 737, between the West Coast and Hawaii. ??

        1. Being more “comfortable” with four or two engines is no longer a consideration. For a long time Hawaii was mostly a trijet market with mostly DC-10s and L-1011s, but these days everything flying there is a twin ranging in size from the 737 to the 777.

          So if someone doesn’t want to fly a twin to Hawaii, they don’t have many options. Maybe something that goes via Asia, like LAX-ICN on a KE or OZ A380, then a hop over to KIX to catch an AirAsiaX A340 to HNL.

    1. Agreed. I flew on the DAL Tristar from ATL to Hawaii when I was a kid. God that was a great aircraft, even with the cigarette smoke permeating throughout the cabin.

    1. The only other places a 737 could make it to Hawaii from the US would be PHX, LAS, RNO, PDX, and SEA. PHX would push the limits of the 737s range and be tricky in the summer with weight restrictions due to heat. Same with LAS. RNO is way too small of a market. PDX and SEA are AS hubs and that would be a big money losing pit for WN. I think WN also stated they were going to fly out of SMF, OAK, SJC, and SAN, so they are avoiding UA’s hubs in SFO and LAX as well.

  6. New to the blog. Would like to fly Southwest to Hawaii.
    What is best way to get fastest notification of WN opening up ticket sales to Hawaii??

  7. From Mr. Watterson’s comments it doesn’t seem like WN is looking to lower prices to the islands but instead get a better return than on a transcon flight. The people who are most looking forward to WN flying to Hawaii are the Rewards members who want to use their companion passes. SMF and SAN would be strong for locals only if WN matches prices out of LAX and SFO otherwise they’ll still make the drive to save the $$

    1. Sean – That’s not how I took it when we were talking. He sees a high fare market where Southwest can lower fares and still make good money, as it does on transcon. That’s the rationale, at least. And in practice, Southwest does tend to put low fares out there in highly competitive markets like these. It’s all the non-competitive markets where Southwest gouges.

  8. Is Southwest’s only interest (for now) in west coast passengers flying to Hawaii? Or will they create fares and connections for people who might want to fly to Hawaii from Baltimore, Dallas, Chicago, etc.., with a change in LA? I can’t imagine they will try to lure an east coast vacationer away from the behemoth carriers (at this point), or that cross-continent travelers will want to spend 12 hours in Southwest 737s… but then what do I know.

    1. Benjamin – They want connections, though I’m not sure how that will work for anything much past the Rockies. There will be flights going west in the morning to Hawai’i, but Andrew said “you want it early but not too early” which I took to mean he wants connecting opportunities. But for eastbound, it’s much tougher. The traditional pattern of afternoon departure and evening arrival on the mainland won’t work with longer connections since Southwest has no redeyes. If Southwest does morning departures with afternoon arrivals, that will work for connections around the West and even into some Midwest cities, but it won’t push further than that.

      1. CF – No one who lives on the west coast wants a morning departure from Hawai’i. We have options on HA, AS, and UA that will leave after lunch and get us home that night.

        1. southbay – I’m talking about connections to places where that’s not an option. Since Southwest doesn’t do redeyes, this is the only way Southwest can serve those people… with a morning flight from Hawai’i.

          1. I see where that would work for connections, but that would be something less than desirable for those of us who actually live on the coast. Plus, that would mean that Southwest has to keep their planes on the ground in Hawai’i overnight. That seems very inefficient.

            1. southbay – Southwest is definitely going to keep some aircraft on the ground overnight, because it’s going to fly an interisland operation. So it may very well be more efficient if an airplane does interisland runs late and then does an early morning flight back to the mainland. But I’m not suggesting this is one or the other. I expect that we’ll see both.

          2. Is a connection realistic? Bwi to san diego got to be nearly 6 hrs, another 6 to hawaii, maybe hr connection time. So easy 12+ hrs with nothing but pretzels? I’ll pass.

            1. Going from the East Coast to Hawaii takes a long time and is a long distance (roughly 5,000 statute miles, about twice the distance of going from the East Coast to the West Coast). For comparison, Honolulu is about the same distance from BWI as Santiago, Chile, and Moscow are, and Southern California to London is only slightly longer.

              On trips from the East Coast to Hawaii layovers on the West Coast are pretty typical and often don’t add much distance (BWI-HNL direct saves only 37 miles as the crow flies compared to stopping in LGB along the way, <1%).

              Point being, from a distance and "butt-in-seat" perspective, going from the East Coast to Hawaii is a hike, and a layover of reasonable length may be a nice break for people. I agree with your point that two legs each of 5-6+ hours with only soda and pretzels isn't ideal, but there are solutions around that (bringing food, buying food at the layover airport, etc), and if the price and schedules are decent Southwest may be an attractive option in spite of the food situation in flight.

            2. Rich – Plenty of people would consider doing it if the price were right.
              Southwest isn’t going to rely on connections to/from BWI to make these flights work, but if they can appeal to some, then it all helps.

  9. The DC10 is an aircraft that was built to a cost, it contains (and always has) a lot of poor engineering, which is why so many DC10 hulls have been lost in accidents and many more have nearly been lost due to those issues.. The D10 has killed a lot of people.

    The L1011 was much better engineered, and in general cost less to operate. Airlines liked the D10 because of the price, other than that, it had absolutely no redeeming values.

  10. I’m sure if you tossed FedEx or UPS enough money and a few 767s they’d gladly sell you their MD-10s and MD-11s. The biggest problem would be to find someone to do a F2P conversion on them..

  11. ETOPS Certification/Hawaii announcement are contingement upon approval of the mechanics contract by the rank and file. They just voted it down!

    1. No ETOPS and Hawaii was never continent on the passing on the TA.
      Only thing holding WN back is the FAA.

  12. Oh no, RAMPS! Hopefully there will not be any buses involved in between the gates and the jet because at PUJ, its like the last helicopter out of Vietnam trying to get from the bus to the ramp. All the A-List and early birds get trampled under foot by an army of C boarding group soldiers.

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