Las Vegas Sun

September 24, 2017

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Is Southwest getting ready to start flying to Hawaii?

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Steve Marcus

A Southwest Airlines passenger jet takes off from McCarran International Airport June 5, 2017.

Southwest Airlines has talked for years about flying to Hawaii.

But the Dallas-based carrier, which has been reluctant to commit to a timeline, could be tipping its hand by being the largest corporate sponsor next week at the Sept. 19-21 Global Tourism Summit at the Hawai'i Convention Center.

Southwest might be setting the stage for its entry into the Hawaii market by bringing a group of Southwest representatives to the summit, which is expected to attract more than 1,000 travel industry representatives. It has not been confirmed yet that a Southwest representative will offer formal remarks at a special reception Sept. 20, but this is the first time Southwest has been a sponsor at the event.

"They're really telegraphing their moves by sponsoring something big in Honolulu," Colorado-based airline consultant Mike Boyd said Tuesday. "They're not doing that if they're just flying to Lubbock."

Boyd said Southwest might have set a precedent regarding major announcements last month by choosing the International Aviation Forecast Summit in Las Vegas to announce an expansion of California service.

Southwest coming to Hawaii isn't likely to result in lower fares, Boyd said.

"There's a lot of expectations if Southwest comes to Hawaii," he said. "It will be very good for Southwest, but it's not going to change the market in Hawaii. They're planning to have 175 seats, and in terms of seat-mile costs, Hawaiian has them beat. So Southwest is not going to go in there and cut fares and stimulate the market. The airplanes they have are not big enough to do that. There are going to be many expectations that Southwest will materially lower fares to the mainland; it just can't happen."

Southwest, which did not return phone calls and emails, informed the Hawaii Tourism Authority in recent talks that it wanted to meet industry leaders.

"Our communication of late has involved Southwest being a major sponsor of the Global Tourism Summit," said Randy Baldemor, chief operating officer for HTA. "Southwest wanted to meet stakeholders of Hawaii's tourism industry, and the summit presented them with an ideal opportunity to fulfill that objective. On matters involving air access or Southwest's interest at entering the Hawaii market, the talks have been less frequent and have related to Southwest becoming more familiar with Hawaii as a possible destination for future service."

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said on the company's July earnings conference call that the airline coming to Hawaii was not a matter of "if we're going to go, it's when we go."

And in May, Kelly said at Southwest's annual shareholders meeting that Hawaii is "pretty high on the priority list."

New York-based airline consultant Bob Mann said Southwest's new reservations and passenger service system gives the airline the capability to handle Hawaii flying. But he said Southwest still would need Extended Operations (ETOPS) certification on its 737-800 aircraft to fly the distance required to Hawaii.

"Southwest has been talking about operating to Hawaii for years longer than some startup airlines remained in business," Mann said. "How soon will Southwest operate to Hawaii? At this point, no sooner than spring/summer 2018 seems likely."