Southwest Airlines plans service to Hawaii, tickets to go on sale next year

(AP Photo/Matt York, File)

Southwest Airlines announced Wednesday it plans to begin selling tickets in 2018 for service to Hawaii.

“Hawaii is an important place for Southwest Airlines because so many people count on us to take them everywhere they want to go reliably and affordably. We’re ready and excited to address a request we’ve heard for years,” said chairman and CEO Gary Kelly.

The announcement was made via satellite. Company president Tom Nealon joined Gov. David Ige with Diamond Head in the background as a crowd of airline executives and employees gathered at Universal Studios in California.

“I think the consumer will benefit, and I do think the Southwest customers are a different customer segment, so it strengthens the brand of Hawaii, because it will be bringing a new customer group into our market,” Ige said.

“The unmatched combination of our people and low fares with nothing to hide will be a game-changer,” said Nealon.

Travelers we spoke to say they’re happy to have another choice.

“It’ll be great. If it’s going to bring in low prices going to the mainland, that’s fantastic. Yep, I would use it,” said Kapolei resident Manny Rivera.

“They’re known as being a discount carrier, and they get a lot of good press in our area,” said Hub Blankenship, a visitor from Spartanburg, South Carolina. “A lot of people were excited when they came to our hometown.”

The airline says the decision has been a long time coming.

Southwest had been working with the governor’s office for months to make sure Daniel K. Inouye International Airport could accommodate Southwest’s planes, specifically the new Boeing 737 MAX, a big reason for Southwest’s decision to fly to Hawaii.

“We thought about it first about 10 years ago. We didn’t think we had the right aircraft for it,” said Andrew Watterson, Southwest executive vice president and chief revenue officer. “So we waited for the newest aircraft from Boeing to come out, the 737 MAX, and now that’s out. We started flying Oct. 1 and less than two weeks later, we’re here announcing we are going to fly to Hawaii.”

The carrier says it will embark on a process to obtain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate between the mainland and Hawaii — a regulatory requirement called Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards (ETOPS).

“The launch of our ETOPS work begins the next chapter of Southwest Airlines. We’re thrilled to bring Hawaii next year as an option to more than 115 million customers who already fly with us annually,” said COO Mike Van de Ven.

The airline will fly to the Hawaiian islands out of multiple locations in California, but officials have not yet said if there will be any interisland routes.

Service details will be announced at a later date.

Could Hawaii see another airfare war?

For local airline analyst Peter Forman, the short answer is no. Don’t expect to see any extreme bargains once Southwest spreads its wings here.

“Southwest does not have a cost percentage over the existing airlines, so it’ll be nice for consumers, because there’s more choices, but I wouldn’t expect radically different fares,” he said.

However, Southwest promises competitive prices.

“There’s always competition,” Watterson said. “The airline industry is very healthy right now. All the airlines flying to and from Hawaii are very healthy, so we don’t expect our entry to make too many waves, but I think we will lower the prices, because right now, I think the prices are a little bit too high to get to and from the mainland.”

Southwest is the only major U.S. airline to offer free baggage for all passengers, and does not charge change fees.

“We’re all economy, but we do it properly — a bit old school, you might say,” Watterson said. “We don’t charge you for bags. We think that’s very inhospitable. We don’t charge you for change fees. We provide free snacks on board, free non-alcoholic beverages, and we have great customer service from our great employees. So it’s a really solid product and customers really enjoy that.”

Hawaiian Airlines released the following statement after the announcement:

“We are no stranger to competition. Hawaii is our home, and our superior product, authentic Hawaiian hospitality and leading punctuality offer travelers the best value when flying to and within our Hawaiian Islands.”

But before Southwest can sell tickets, Forman says the airline must pass several benchmarks to get certification from the FAA, which could take several months at best.

The airline needs to prove that its fleet is fit to fly five hours over the open ocean.

“What that is is showing extreme reliability flying twin engines, because the concern is if one engine fails, then that remaining engine has to take you to your destination, so it’s a pretty rigorous process,” Forman said.

Another issue to be addressed is finding gate space at the airport, something that will likely come after receiving federal approval.

One matter Forman is looking forward to seeing is what cities Southwest will choose to serve Hawaii.

“The nice thing about the 737 is they’re smaller planes, so they can fly more routes between Hawaii and the mainland that other airlines with the bigger airplanes can’t do,” he said.

Southwest Airlines started flying in 1971. The Dallas-based airline now services more than 100 U.S. cities, and flies to 10 countries, including the U.S.

In the government’s most recent report, Southwest ranks ninth for on-time performance.

Hawaiian came in at number one.

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