Southwest Airlines is making a move to become one of the largest airlines flying between the continental U.S. and Hawaii after little more than two years in the market to the 50th state.
The Dallas-based carrier will add 15 new routes and three new mainland gateways in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix from June 6 through September 7. The additions will bring an influx of new capacity to the islands — nearly tripling the number of seats Southwest flies in the market — just as the leisure travel recovery is forecast to take off this summer.
But the move also pits Southwest more directly against the long-standing leaders to Hawaii. In terms of daily seats to the islands, the airline will jump from sixth place out of seven carriers at the beginning of June to a close third behind United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines — leapfrogging the likes of Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines — by September, according to Cirium schedules and an Airline Weekly analysis of the new flights. And all but two of its new routes — Las Vegas to Kona and Lihue — will compete directly with another carrier.
The Hawaii additions come as airlines report strong demand for domestic leisure travel. On Monday, Alaska executives told analysts from J.P. Morgan that its Hawaii flights boasted the “highest load factors in [its] system” amid the broad leisure travel recovery. Demand to the islands is driven by the lack of many long-haul international beach destinations open to Americans, the analysts wrote in a report.
Since the worst days of the pandemic passed last spring, Southwest has used the crisis to grow in ways previously unimaginable for the airline. It has added or unveiled 17 new destinations — ranging from outdoor-oriented Bozeman, Mont., to high-cost hub Miami — in a momentous move for an airline that once made headlines for adding one or two new cities in a year. Executives have repeatedly said that, with demand down for its typically high-frequency hop schedules, it makes sense to use otherwise idled aircraft to expand the breadth of its map and tap new revenue streams.
“We’re a growth company,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said during the airline’s first-quarter earnings call in April. “We know how to manage growth, and we would be foolish to pass on what I think is the opportunity of a lifetime to grow this airline in this environment.”
Asked about further growth on top of the 17 new destinations, Kelly said: “We got a lot more we’d like to add.”
Southwest’s Hawaii play is likely to test other airlines willingness to challenge their new competitor. Hawaiian executives have repeatedly played down the new competition, expressing confidence in the airline being the “carrier of choice” in the state. The carrier has also added new service, including between Honolulu and both Austin and Orlando. And United, the market leader, has resumed its full network to Hawaii and is adding new routes, including Orange County-Honolulu and Newark-Kahului.
When Southwest unveiled plans to add Palm Springs to its map last year, Alaska responded in kind with new service between the California desert town and Boise, Reno and San Jose, Calif. And while Palm Springs is an important — albeit small — leisure destination for the Seattle-based carrier, Hawaii accounted for 14 percent of its pre-crisis capacity and a significant chunk of revenue. It is very likely that Alaska will not go gently into the night.
Southwest’s new routes include nonstops each between Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix and Honolulu, Kahului, Kona and Lihue — 12 routes in total. In addition, it will connect San Diego with Kahului, Kona and Lihue. All of the new routes will be flown with either Boeing 737-800 or 737-8 aircraft that seat 175 passengers.
In the second quarter, Southwest plans to fly roughly 85 percent of its 2019 capacity. The most of the four largest U.S. carriers, including American, Delta and United.