Four years ago this month, Southwest Hawaii flights arrived in Honolulu. To this day, Southwest is a big deal here, no matter how you feel about them. Their arrival brought airfares down to some sustained, unexpectedly low levels, including the $39 airfares interisland still available and regular Hawaii airfares from the mainland as low as $119. Not only that, but the company offers a unique and high-quality Hawaii travel product that impressed us.
Hawaii is Southwest’s latest focus region.
One of the regular complaints about their Hawaii operation is that it has been controlled largely from the mainland. But now, the airline has opened a serious new operations support center at Honolulu airport. This is one of only 18 such centers Southwest maintains in its network.
Southwest’s COO (and ex-Hawaiian Airlines exec) Andy Watterson was in Honolulu last week to mark the center’s opening. He noted that Hawaii, which he knows as well as anyone, needs this type of operation center as much as focus cities of far greater size do.
Andy said, “Honolulu is a medium-sized airport, but it serves as an anchor for the other four island airports and Hawaii operations to the mainland.”
A new Honolulu command center coordinates gates, flight holds, and network Ops.
That means a local focus to help with flight delays, cancellations, changes of aircraft, and coordination with air traffic control. In other words, this is intended to keep Southwest’s Hawaii flights operating far more smoothly.
Andy said last week of this commitment, “This is what you do when you have an operation that is kind of a big scale, and you want to perform at a high level over a period of time: You spend the money to invest in that structure to support the operations over the long haul.”
Since Southwest arrived in Honolulu, they have gone from arguably the worst gates to the best at the airport. They also upgraded their luggage handling and check-in systems. The airline now uses the E gates, which are centrally located in the airport and have the most food and shopping options.
Southwest has grown to 700 Hawaii employees.
That compares with Hawaiian Air’s 7,000, so it’s interesting to note the difference in size. Today’s 700 is an increase of approximately 36 percent, however, compared with just last year at Hawaii’s five airports the airline serves. The company is still hiring more people in Hawaii and hopes to onboard another 50 in short order.
There are always rumors of Southwest contemplating a Honolulu crew base at some point, but that seems unlikely. They currently have bases at Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Orlando, and Phoenix.
The new fleet coming to Southwest Hawaii flights in 2024.
Southwest began in Hawaii with an existing fleet of ETOPS-certified Boeing 737-800 planes. That was because the MAX 8 fleet, planned for Hawaii, was grounded following the two deadly crashes. Once MAX flying resumed, Southwest moved their flights to utilize those more fuel-efficient aircraft.
The company has 192 MAX 7 planes on order, which have been delayed and are awaiting FAA certification. Southwest plans to move a significant portion of its Hawaii flights to the new plane type, which has 25 fewer seats than the current 175-passenger Max 8.
Watterson said last week, “When we get the MAX 7 certified, we’ll be using that interisland as well as to the mainland. Our business case for the neighbor island network always included MAX 7s. I anticipate spring or summer of 2024 is when they will be in revenue service.”
New Hawaii routes will come with Boeing 737 MAX-7.
For now, Southwest said they do not intend to make major changes to their schedule. But even before the new fleet, they do expect season variability in terms of both routes and frequencies.
But Southwest isn’t done with Hawaii. The airline clearly has its sights on flying to Hawaii from Denver, among other places, which, while well-served, is expensive and presents another opportunity for the airline. There are quite a number of possible new routes to Hawaii with this soon-to-be-arriving MAX-7 fleet. The mountain states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico are all possibilities. There are rumors too of some interest at Southwest in flying internationally from Hawaii to destinations in the Pacific. The maximum range of the MAX-7 is 3,850 miles, compared with the MAX-8’s 3,550 miles.
SWA: Hawaii market fares will prevail.
While Watterson said that “we pride ourselves on low fares,” that isn’t necessarily the case in every market. Here in Hawaii, it is more a function of the highly competitive situation prevailing with his old employer, Hawaiian Airlines.