OAKLAND – In a historic milestone, Southwest Airlines officially said Aloha to Hawaii yesterday with a long-awaited launch that marks the beginning of its expansion into one of the largest holes in their extensive domestic network.

The inaugural flight, appropriately numbered 6808 in reference to Hawaii’s area code 808, departed Oakland International Airport (OAK) bound for Honolulu Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) in the island of Oahu.

While initially announced in October 2017 and planned for 2018, the long and extensive process involving FAA authorization and ETOPS certification inevitably the airline’s first round of Hawaiian expansion to be delayed until this moment.

This expansion, besides Oakland to Honolulu, also includes service between Oakland and Kahului (OGG) to be launched on April 7th, followed by San Jose (SJC) to Honolulu on May 5th, and San Jose to Kahului on May 26th.

Additionally, Southwest will also launch Inter-island flights between Honolulu and Kahului and Kona (KOA) scheduled to begin on April 28th and May 12th, respectively.

Having had the staff and terminal infrastructure in Honolulu ready for a couple of months and remaining on stand-by waiting for the flights to start in light of the certification-related delays, Southwest wasted no time in announcing starting dates for its Hawaii flights only a couple weeks prior to the official launch.

This move, which contrasts with the common practice of airlines announcing service to new markets months in advance, surprised many in the industry who expected a later launch.

In order to fill those flights with such little notice, Southwest announced promotional fares starting at as low as $49. Unsurprisingly for an airline with such a massive marketing power, this resulted in a huge PR boost and the flights sold within a matter of hours.

As the anticipated day finally arrived, the celebration began the moment one walked at Oakland’s Terminal 2, featuring check-in desks adorned with Southwest’s signature blue, red, and yellow-coloured balloons and a ground staff excited for the launch.

At Gate 4 we were greeted by N8329B, a 2012-built frame and one of the few ETOPS-certified 737-800s in the Southwest fleet.

These ETOPS 737-800s will cover the airline’s Hawaii operation before eventually transitioning to the more efficient and better-suited 737 MAX-8 and MAX-7 at a future stage.

The celebration at the gate, surrounded by even more fanfare and a great festive mood, was remarkably immersed in Hawaiian culture with the presence of rhythms from the islands that entertained those in attendance.

At the podium, officials from Oakland’s aviation authority, the Port of Oakland, highlighted the importance of Southwest Airlines’ commitment to the city and what the key milestone represents for the airport.

Southwest’s EVP and Chief Revenue Officer, Andrew Watterson, also highlighted the important relationship between the airline and the airport and the key role it played in getting the airline closer to Hawaii.

Watterson commented on the historic relevance that filling the Hawaii network hole has for Southwest and emphasized some of the competitive advantages the airline will have in capturing the Hawaiian market such as offering complimentary checked luggage and flexible schedule changes.

The customary ribbon cutting ceremony was replaced by the performance of a traditional Hawaiian blessing as a cultural tribute to the islands and its people.  

Boarding began to take place around 10:30 am local time for our scheduled 11:10 am departure.

Of course, a Hawaiian festivity would not be complete without the famous Leis, which were given to each passenger upon boarding and were made of real hibiscus flower.

Additionally, gift bags containing Hawaiian-themed luggage tags, pins, and pens as well as a certificate in commemoration of the historic flight were provided to each passenger at the jetway.

Once onboard we were greeted by Nicole, Sophie, Katelyn and Silulu, a clearly enthusiastic and excited cabin crew who were without doubt honoured to be a part of such a milestone for their airline.

Visibly just as excited as our cabin crew, Captain Mike Styer said Aloha to everyone onboard through the PA system once boarding was completed and introduced First officers Robert Everts and Brad Apostolo who would join him in the cockpit as well as the rest of the crew and wished us a very fun flight to Honolulu, followed by a round of applause.

Door 1L was closed at 11:22 am, 12 minutes ahead of our scheduled departure time. Our flight to Honolulu would take 5 hours and 37 minutes at 30,000ft, with some turbulence to be expected along the way.

As we pushed back, a crowd of Southwest’s Oakland ground crew waved goodbye holding enthusiastic signs such as “Get excited, you’re going to Hawaii!”, “Wish I could go with you, take lots of pictures!”, among others.

While most flights of such importance are sent off with a water salute, being in California meant we were escorted to the runway by the airport’s ARFF brigade instead as a conscious water-preserving measure.

Departing from Oakland’s Runway 30, Southwest Airlines’ inaugural flight to Hawaii was officially airborne!

Climbing out, our westbound route provided a very scenic view of the city of San Francisco that delighted everyone seated on the left side of the aircraft.

Shortly after levelling off at 30,000ft, Cabin crew distributed snack bags which will be exclusively available on flights to Hawaii. These included crackers, cheddar cheese spread, fruit snacks, pretzels, Tic Tacs, and a moist towelette.

“When asked about beverages, I asked for water and jokingly added “unless there’s a complimentary piña colada”, to which Nicole mentioned they had something similar to a Mai Tai with coconut rum and orange juice which was a nice touch to celebrate the flight.”

While offered, the satellite-based inflight Wi-Fi remained unfortunately slow throughout the flight, which made live-tweeting the details about the flight particularly difficult.

A couple hours into the flight, Southwest’s Vice President of Inflight Operations, Sonya Lacore, addressed the passengers through the PA system and announced a special surprise to celebrate the inaugural: Hula dancers.

Shortly after, three dancers in traditional Hawaiian attire walked down the aisle performing and dancing folkloric songs with messages about the islands at 30,000ft over the Pacific Ocean. Certainly a very unique type of inflight entertainment one is not used to seeing every day!

As announced by the captain, turbulence was encountered at many points over the ocean. This delayed the second beverage service to which the cabin crew apologized.

In terms of service, Milano cookies were also distributed later during the flight.

The cabin crew remained exceptionally warm and attentive throughout the entire flight in traditional Southwest fashion.

Agricultural forms similar to international customs forms were provided to each passenger to be filled by the requirement of the Hawaiian authorities, even on domestic flights.

After more than 5 hours in the air since departing Oakland, Flight 6808 began its descent into the island of Oahu, where after a scenic approach we touched down at Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport’s Runway 8L at 2:01 pm local time.

On the ground, a crowd of over two dozen people including Southwest and Airport staff festively greeted our arrival at warm Honolulu.

Inside the terminal, each passenger was welcomed to Hawaii with another Lei given by the island’s Southwest staff in the presence of more traditional Hawaiian music performance. Cookies and beverages were provided to everyone present.

Formerly a warehouse for airport equipment, the Hawaii Department of Transportation invested over three million dollars in transforming the space into terminal infrastructure built specifically for Southwest, explain airport officials at the post-arrival press conference.

This area, featured with Southwest’s traditional boarding protocol signage similar to those found in airports across the mainland, is located on ground level and is composed of Gates G7 through G10 on HNL’s Terminal 2 which have. Being on ground level, it means boarding is done out in the open without the use of jetways.  

A post-arrival press conference conducted by Southwest executives and Hawaiian leaders took inside the new terminal space, where the traditional ribbon cutting etiquette was once again replaced by a traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony, much like on departure.

At the press conference, the Governor of Hawaii, David Ige, declared the moment as a historic one, having spent almost a decade trying to get Southwest to launch flights to the islands.

Ige highlighted the opportunity Southwest provides to the economic development of the state, adding value and choices to its market.

Meanwhile, Southwest President Tom Nealon commented on the incredible effort made by the airline to make the moment come true after years in the making and overcoming multiple regulatory and certification-related constraints.

He highlighted the strategic importance having Hawaii on the network provides and the role Southwest’s renowned hospitality and corporate culture will play in making the island operation a successful one.  

By late May 2019, Southwest expects to add over 4,900 seats to the Hawaiian market with 28 flights a day between Hawaii and the mainland and inter-island, emphasizes Nealon.

Overall, this is a significant milestone for both Hawaii and Southwest Airlines.

This will begin to make the market a proving ground to competitors as no doubt, we will see fares drop as a result.

And as Southwest adds more origin airports too, it will no doubt make other competitors across the U.S sweat for sure.