South­west an­nounces plans for in­ter­is­land flights

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - FRONT PAGE - By JOHN BUR­NETT Email John Bur­nett at jbur­nett@hawai­itri­bune-herald.com.

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.”

“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 long­haul 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.

“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.”

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