SAN JOSE — Seven weeks after Southwest Airlines commenced its groundbreaking service to Hawaii from Oakland, California (OAK), the Texas airline known for its “LUV” inaugurated flights from San Jose, California (SJC), its second Hawaiian gateway. 

This followed interisland service between Honolulu (HNL) and Kahului (OGG) on Maui that began the previous week. 

The LUV Hawaiian Adventure Begins

On March 17, 2019, the airline officially said Aloha to Hawaii 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.

The inaugural flight from San Jose to the island was appropriately celebrated at the airport’s terminals.

At the Southwest ticket counter at SJC, passengers were greeted by a giant balloon sculpture depicting an Aloha wave and coconut trees. 

Gate 25 was strategically chosen for this special flight, located right at security check exit.  There, hula dancers, singers, and musicians performed traditional Hawaiian tunes to get everyone into the Island mood. 

Being the early 7 am time on a Sunday morning, airline and airport staff had to inject extra energy to get the crowd excited.  Upon boarding, passengers received cookies decorated with “Aloha” as well as a Hawaiian themed gift bag. 

Flight WN 6399 to Honolulu was flown by a Boeing 737-800 (N8325D).  The ETOPS-certified aircraft pushed from the gate one minute early at 8:19 am. 

Out on the ramp, Southwest employees held signs that displayed humorous Hawaiian themed messages which personified the airline’s fun-loving attitude.  They waved enthusiastically as aircraft 8325 pushed back and taxied away. 

Wasting no time, the 737 took-off from Runway 30R a few minutes later enroute to the Island of Oahu, where it landed 5 hours and 16 minutes later at 10:44 am, an early arrival.

Positive Customer Response

Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s Executive VP, and Chief Revenue Officer spoke with Airways about initial customer response to the airline’s new service. 

“Customer response has been overwhelming…we have been pretty much filling up all the seats,” said Watterson.  He continued, this “indicates a very strong customer adoption”.

Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s Executive VP, and Chief Revenue Officer

However, because of the Federal government shutdown earlier in the year, ETOPS certification was delayed. 

Watterson noted that due to the short booking window between service start announcement and first flights, the airline had to sell seats at super cheap fares in order to fill seats. 

As a result, the airline is seeing low 90% load factors through the early summer months. 

With its loyal flyers, Watterson said the airline is seeing above average Rapid Reward points and Companion Pass redemptions.  This is consistent with the airline’s international leisure destinations and in-line with the business case for Hawaii. 

Entering A Heated Market

As a new entrant in Hawaii, Southwest is in a crowded marketplace.  At OAK and SJC, the airline now finds itself in a three-way battle between Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines. 

In particular, Alaska established a niche in Hawaii by flying nonstop from non-hub cities to the outer Islands (that is, from not-San Francisco and not-Los Angeles to not-Honolulu). 

Home-island airline Hawaiian responded in kind.  With Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America, Alaska now challenges Southwest in California. 

A check of the timetable at the end of June shows flyers from OAK can choose up to four flights to HNL on the weekends and three daily flights to OGG. 

From SJC, there are 11 weekly flights to HNL and three daily flights to OGG.  Currently, nonstop flights are flown by Alaska to Lihue (LIH) on Kauai and Kona (KOA) on the Big Island remain uncontested.

Throughout the month of May, Southwest will continue to aggressively expand Hawaii services in preparation for the busy summer travel season. 

Interisland flights between HNL and KOA begins on May 12.  Flights from SJC to OGG begins on May 26. 

Details for flights to LIH and third and fourth gateway cities of Sacramento (SMF) and San Diego (SAN) are expected over the next month or two. 

For the moment, Southwest is able to fill seats with attractive offers.  Over time, it remains to be seen whether flights will be profitable and which airline will survive the battle for Hawaii.  In the end, flyers are the winners.  At least in 2019, Californians will set their sights westward to the Islands!