Southwest Airlines Finally Announces — They’re Going to Hawaii!

Southwest needs cities to expand to. While their archetypal route is short-distance and high frequency, they’ve got a huge hole in their route network in travel to the Hawaiian islands. They used to offer codeshares to Hawaii with ATA, an airline that offered up to 70 flights a week from Southwest cities at the time it entered chapter 11 bankruptcy nearly a decade ago.

Hawaii service has been speculated for years. In December 2010 they advertised for an ETOPS manager suggesting they were planning long overwater flights.

Finally this year service has begun to seem imminent. At the airline’s shareholders meeting in May CEO Gary Kelly described Hawaii as a high priority.

In July Kelly said that “it’s not if we’re going to go, it’s when we go” and oh by the way don’t expect meals inflight despite the distance.

Southwest is working to maintain its position as the major player in California, but that’s tough to do without California – Hawaii service which both Alaska Airlines and United offer (not to mention American and Delta).

Overnight they finally announced:

  • that they do intend to fly to Hawaii
  • they’re working to get planes certified to fly long distances overwater (“ETOPS” certification, Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards also known as “Engines Turn or Passengers Swim”)
  • and they’ll sell tickets next year.

Oddly Southwest will start flights using Boeing 737-800 aircraft and not their new 737 MAXs although that’s temporary and overwater service will ultimately be on the newer long range aircraft.

They’ve said they’ll fly initially between California and Hawaii but haven’t announced specific cities yet, what date tickets go on sale, or what the date of inaugural service will be. Southwest also says they’re considering interisland flights within Hawaii.

Surprising to many Southwest Airlines is the largest carrier of domestic passengers. They offer a consistent product that’s great for short haul, and leisure passengers benefit from no checked baggage fees and boarding together it’s usually easy to get seats together at no extra charge (Southwest has no preassigned seating). And they promise lower fares than are currently in the market.

However while Southwest has more legroom than is standard on American and United, they do use the same B/E Aerospace Meridien seats on their newer aircraft which I find fine on my regular Washington National – Austin flight but slimline seats for five hours may be pushing it. And Southwest has suggested in the past that they don’t plan to serve meals on their Hawaii flights either.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Plenty of people fly economy class (on 737s!) to Hawaii, so I don’t see why folks are targeting Southwest as a particularly uncomfortable option.

  2. The 737-800’s have more legroom than Southwest’s other aircraft. It seems to be about 3/4 inch more, and it makes all the difference. This configuration is nearly the best coach seating in today’s US market, surpassed only by JetBlue and Virgin America.

    Southwest’s 737-700’s have tight seating that is what we’ve come to expect from US carriers these days. Customers must not have been willing to pay 4% higher fares, to avoid having those extra seats (4% of the former seat count) added. For a one-hour flight, that makes sense to me.

  3. WN 73Gs are 31″, non-max 738s are 32-33″ (per Seatguru, so take any amount of salt you like). on other carriers, there’s easily up to 40% of the cabin in 34″ or more legroom in their MCE/C+/E+ cabin zones, frequently free to certain or all elites.

    the others have assigned seats (so one can board at their leisure instead of that exact moment A37 or B25 is called) and have interline partners for IRROPS accommodation.

    regardless of legroom, until WN fixes those 2 fundamental deficiencies, i’d much prefer patronizing airlines that do.

  4. “(don”t) have interline partners for IRROPS accommodation”

    Wildly overrated. When was the last time American or United put you on the other guy during IRROPS … i never see that happening anymore. they’d rather give a hotel voucher …

    Frequency much more important than interline in IRROPS.

    I’m with you on legroom. they need to maintain it. If they do, they will be formidable and non-alliance carrier like HA is going to feel it IMO.

  5. “Wildly overrated. When was the last time American or United put you on the other guy during IRROPS … i never see that happening anymore. they’d rather give a hotel voucher …”

    I have actually had United put me on Delta and Delta put me on United in the last year and two years ago respectively. These were both cancelled flights that are low revenue (each way say 150-200) similar to where I would fly Southwest flights (Southwest was just too expensive for those trips).

    That said any similar issues I have had on Southwest have been accommodated just as easily, just on their own metal with some routing changes. So I do think Southwest has some ability to recover using their own metal better than the other airlines (all economy/more seats per plane/etc). That said the flexibility of interline is definitely useful in very specific circumstances.

  6. For regular business travel with one or two people, IRROPS is not that important. For some reason, everyone seems very forgiving when flights are delayed or cancelled when travelling on business. For vacation travel, with the family, IRROPS and assigned seating, and food, and minimal stops/plane changes, start to make the difference between a good vacation and a bad vacation.
    Southwest may find formidable existing competition with Alaska, HA, DAL, and United. They may be better off concentrating on the civilized parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. If the Hawaii market is truly saturated, a real possibility, we may see some very reasonable fares from the Midwest to Hawaii on SW, the legacy carriers, and Alaska. I have to start saving up.

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