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Southwest announces plans for interisland flights

  • courtesy photo Southwest Airlines plans to fly Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft similar to the one in the foreground to serve Hawaii once approval is received from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Southwest Airlines, which created a buzz last year by announcing plans to fly between the mainland and Hawaii, said Thursday it also plans to fly passengers interisland for lower fares than travelers currently are paying.

Hawaiian Airlines has a more than 90 percent share of the interisland air passenger market. Tom Nealon, Southwest’s president, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he purchased an interisland ticket and found it “very expensive.”

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“We’ve done our homework on it, and if you look back at our history in short haul, when we’ve entered a market where there’s not a lot of competition, we go and bring low fares in combination with great service,” Steve Goldberg, Southwest’s senior vice president over operations and hospitality, told the Tribune-Herald on Thursday. “And I think that’s what we’re really trying to drive on interisland, and how that matches up with our mainland service, as well.”

Goldberg said the carrier hopes to start interisland service in late 2018 or early 2019.

Last week, Southwest announced its initial plan to serve four airports in the Hawaiian Islands with flights from the mainland — Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu (HNL), Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA), Kahului Airport on Maui (OGG) and Lihue Airport on Kauai (LIH).

As for Hilo, Goldberg said, “It’s not yet on the map based on this initial announcement, but it’s very much on our radar. For an interisland offering, it’s critical.”

“We’re so excited about the interisland service,” he added. “It’s getting our foot into the door. … And as we’ve done in other markets, in our Southwest way, just traditionally building our market.”

Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said he was “a little shocked” by Southwest’s intention to fly interisland.

“They came to the islands, met with some of our stakeholders, met with some of the local chambers (of commerce) and different entities, and heard the message loud and clear that interisland (flights) is definitely a need, more than a want,” Birch said. “And it wasn’t in their original business plan, but they’re looking at bumping that up to get it done as soon as possible. And they already announced the locations they would be flying into from the mainland, as well.”

Birch said he broached the idea of adding Hilo as a destination for interisland flights with Southwest officials.

“That, to me, is a far easier thing to get into place before (direct) mainland flights,” Birch said. According to Birch, the relatively small number of hotel rooms in Hilo makes it a less attractive option than West Hawaii, both to mainland visitors flying to Hawaii and to airline carriers looking to add mainland service to neighbor island destinations.

In addition, Southwest rolled out additional details in the carrier’s service plans for Hawaii by announcing initial gateway cities in California that would offer nonstop service to Hawaii pending required regulatory approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration. Oakland Metropolitan Airport (OAK), San Diego International Airport (SAN), Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) and Sacramento International Airport (SMF) would gain Hawaii service in the carrier’s flight schedules once Southwest gains ETOPS (extended operations) certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. The certification is necessary for Southwest to operate long-haul flights over the ocean.

“California’s very important to us,” Goldberg said. “We’re the number one intrastate California carrier. We transport over 60 percent inter-California passengers. And one thing we’ve heard for years from our customers is they love flying us, but they want to go to Hawaii.”

According to the website Planespotters.net, Southwest, a Dallas-based carrier founded in 1967, operates a fleet of 720 Boeing 737 passenger planes, mostly 737-700 and 737-800 models, with aircraft averaging 10.3 years in age. Plans for Hawaii service are to initially fly 737-800s, then convert to a newer 737 model, the MAX 8.

“Fitting Hawaii into those plans with our big customer base in California is fantastic,” Goldberg said. “And, I think, as we get into this and build the market, and see what we can do with the MAX 8.

“We do take delivery of the MAX 7 next year, which is an airplane with longer range than the MAX 8. Then we can start thinking about some other things, such as Las Vegas or some other points just a little east of California, as well.”

The MAX 8 can carry 175 passengers, while the MAX 7 has a 150-passenger capacity.

Southwest currently doesn’t fly any routes requiring ETOPS certification.

“It’s something we’ve never done, to equip the airplanes to fly for extended periods over water,” Goldberg said. “We’re going through that protocol and … getting the organization and the company aligned with that certification. It takes time to get there.

“And that’s why you’re not seeing any specificity with schedules, fares or anything like that. Because the number one thing is to get the ETOPS certification.”

The interisland air passenger market Southwest proposes to enter is one littered with the corporate corpses of airlines that went out of business attempting to compete with Hawaiian, including Aloha Airlines, Mid Pacific Air, go! and Island Air.

“We’re really excited about getting into market and bringing our low fares, bags fly free, no change fees and our wonderful hospitality and customer service to the islands,” Goldberg said. “We think our culture lines up well with the Hawaiian culture. We’re really looking forward to hopefully get going by the end of the year.”

Peter Ingram, Hawaiian Airlines president and CEO, issued an email statement in response to Southwest’s announcements.

“Southwest’s PR strategy has been to toss out tidbits without much detail, so it’s unclear what kind of service or operation they are committing to,” Ingram said. “What I can say is that we fly 170 (Boeing) B717 flights every day between our islands, from 5 a.m. to 10:15 p.m. We employ thousands of Hawaii residents — more than 1,000 mechanics, flight attendants, pilots and ground staff specifically for this part of our network — in careers that pay well, keep local talent in Hawaii and help our economy grow. Our operation is convenient and extremely punctual thanks to world-class employees who welcome our guests with unparalleled hospitality, so we are not afraid of competition.”

Ingram also responded to Nealon’s statement about interisland fares.

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“We found Mr. Nealon’s statement about fares curious. The one-way fares for close-in travel (today) on one of our most popular routes — Honolulu-Kona — range from $85 to $195, while Southwest’s one-way fares for travel (today) from Austin-Houston — a flight of similar length — range from $233 to $270.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.