Southwest Airlines on Wednesday night made official what it had hinted at for years — it soon will fly to Hawaii from the West Coast.
It did not not release where it would fly or exactly when, but it told employees at an event in Los Angeles it planned to begin selling tickets in 2018. It seems most likely the airline will focus on routes from California, though Boeing says the newest 737 model operated by Southwest can fly about 3,500 nautical miles — enough range for flights from most of the Western United States to Hawaii.
Historically risk-averse Southwest had long considered Hawaii too logistically challenging for new flights. Airlines with aircraft that fly long distances overwater require special approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for what the industry calls ETOPS.
Essentially, an airline must prove to regulators it can safely fly routes for which there are few, if any, diversion airports. Aircraft with ETOPS certification must also fly with extra safety equipment.
Most larger airlines have many special overwater certified planes, and an airline as sophisticated as Southwest should have little trouble meeting FAA standards. It said Wednesday it will launch an application with the FAA.
In August, Southwest Chief Revenue Officer Andrew Watterson told Skift it would likely take 12 months between the airline’s announcement — he said during an interview it was a “matter of when, not if” — and the first Hawaii flight. Of course, it could take slightly longer, pushing the first flight to 2019.
Initially, Southwest likely will fly its older model Boeing 737-800s to Hawaii. But eventually, Southwest is expected to use its new Boeing 737 Max, the first of which started flying for the airline early this month. The Max can fly farther and is more fuel efficient than Southwest’s older Boeing 737-700s and 737-800s. And it’s also relatively big, with 175 seats in Southwest’s configuration.
If Hawaii is anything like other markets Southwest has disrupted over the past decades, industry fares could fall. Prices for Hawaii flights are consistently some of the highest in the United States, one reason former Virgin America CEO David Cush said his airline started flying to Hawaii in late 2015.
Other airlines have also said in recent months they will add new Hawaii flights. In June United, announced it would add more capacity, especially from Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Hawaiian Airlines has said it plans to use new Airbus A321neos next year to add new West Coast routes, including to cities that might not have been profitable with less fuel efficient airplanes.
Battle with Alaska Airlines
In part, Southwest is more bullish on Hawaii because it is locked in a battle with Alaska Airlines over which can fly more leisure travelers in the state.
Southwest has long flown more passengers to and from California than any other airline, but Alaska, which acquired Virgin America last year, has been trying to poach many of those customers. Both airlines have added flights in smaller California cities, including San Diego, San Jose and Sacramento, as well as at the two big airports — Los Angeles and San Francisco.
For Southwest, the best way to keep its customers loyal is to fly to the places they want to go. So far, Southwest had done that by adding new flights from California to popular Mexico beach destinations, including Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas.
But in August, Watterson, said Hawaii routes would make the airline even more useful to West Coast residents.
“We’re the biggest airline in California,” Watterson said. “For much of California, Hawaii is closer than Florida so it would make sense for us to go there.”