I have avoided writing this post for just shy of a year because there wasn’t yet corroborating evidence or reason to believe it’s true – now there may be. Based on potentially reliable information, Southwest may focus on Denver to open their Hawaii route aspirations.
What I Heard
On a beach in Kona, for a hotel review I have not yet written, a casual conversation with a Southwest employee took place. At the time I looked up his name and his position matched his claims. We were discussing Hawaii and how much my family was enjoying the trip and how we flew American in economy and were displeased. I’ve already discussed my intention to leave American, but it was the failure to use instruments to upgrade when it counted the most that put the final nails in the coffin.
He asked why I didn’t move my business to Southwest, especially given their rapid expansion into Latin America and the Caribbean. While I love the Companion Pass, and we used it to go to Aruba and Jamaica among others – Southwest simply doesn’t cover enough of the destinations we like to visit further afield including destinations like Hawaii.
He then stated that Hawaii was in the cards, but they just couldn’t get the airplanes. They had been waiting on 737-MAX aircraft but nothing had the legs to get to the islands. I added that plenty of other carriers are flying on 737s without the MAX variant from Vegas, California, Washington, and Oregon. He stated that Southwest was looking for “longer legs” and that there was renewed interest in Denver without directly stating:
“Southwest wants to fly Denver to Hawaii”
I asked some probing questions going a bit further but this was more or less the limitation of what he was willing to share. It was a foregone conclusion for him that when Southwest had the aircraft, they would start their Hawaii flights from Denver.
Speculation about their recent appearance at a Hawaii tourism event reinforced the swirling waters of suspicion that Southwest was ready for their big push.
That event came and went without such an announcement to the disappointment of many.
United has taken comments made by Southwest executives to the next level by flooding their current markets with seats to the islands. Fares from the west coast, once a deal at $300-ish appears to now be obtainable nearly on demand. United clearly intends to snuff Southwest out before the get the chance to even announce their intentions.
But most of those increases in frequency come from west coast cities and those don’t make any sense anyway? Here are a few reasons why.
- Competition is brutal from the saturated west coast. United, American, Delta and Hawaiian fly the heavy equipment (among others) while Virgin America and Alaska actually fly more flights to the islands than any other carrier. From Denver, a Southwest hub, the carrier battles just United and flows tens of thousands of passengers through the Mile-High city every day already.
- The appearance of Southwest at the Hawaii tourism event suggests that flights could be imminent, which may or may not coincide with the recent acceptance of their first 737-MAX which just flew the original Texas circuit (DAL-HOU-SAT). Those events both took place last month with the first flight to come this week.
- The legs on the 737 MAX make the most use coming from a long-distance Southwest stronghold but you wouldn’t necessarily need them to fly from Phoenix, Vegas, or LAX – all Southwest “hubs”. East of those markets, the next largest hub for Southwest is Denver and beyond that, the 737-MAX wouldn’t make any other journeys possible from next closest hubs like Dallas Love, Houston Hobby, or Chicago Midway. In essence, Denver is the only city that required the MAX to make it work where a 737 could possibly fly to the islands.
- It’s not about beating United in Denver, but it wouldn’t break LUV’s heart if they did. United is busy fighting Frontier for the true home team airline of Denver title with a battle royale death match a la Alaska/Delta/Seattle. Frontier won’t challenge United for long haul flights – they don’t have the aircraft; but I bet the welcome the help.
When And Where Will They Launch?
The Southwest customer market has changed from the mid-90s when most of the country started to notice the discount carrier. At the time, their focus on the leisure market and “competing with driving” (to quote Herb Kelleher in Nuts!) and that would suggest that Hawaii wasn’t just out of reach for their aircraft, but also their customers.
But that has changed! The carrier’s simple approach to aircraft type, boarding, status, and point accrual and redemption have won over a wary bunch of consultants. These road warriors travel to mid-level markets every week that have grown tired of regional jets and would gladly exchange a shot at first class roulette in favor of an exit-row seat, pleasant service and direct flights. Now that Southwest charges the same or more than the competition 65% of the time, it’s the lack of ancillary charges, and reputation of friendly service that has built a loyal following.
Looking at Hawaiian airports and Southwest’s market, Honolulu or Kona are the obvious choices. Hilo is more or less a volume addition for the Big Island of Hawaii (Kona handles more of the traffic and is closer to resorts). Honolulu has arguably the most affordable hotels and is most touristy of the islands.
Looking at Denver, it has the least amount of competition for Southwest within range of a 737-MAX. United does put a heavy-configuration 777-200 on the Honolulu route, but the rest (Kona, Lihue, Maui) will use 757s which will have a few seats more than Southwest’s MAX. No one else runs any of the routes and United has only recently increased to 40 (YES 40) daily flights to Hawaii to potentially shut out Southwest’s entrance to the islands.
The Los Angeles market is saturated. United alone already flies five dailies just to Honolulu but just increased every single flight to at least daily which includes Hilo, now two daily flights to Lihue and Kona, and three times daily to Maui. Consider Maui from LAX, which welcomes two Delta flights, four American flights, one Hawaiian Airlines, one Virgin America in addition to the three aforementioned United daily flights. Why would Southwest want to start flying from there?
Phoenix is a little less crowded but still sees heavy competition from American (twice daily to Honolulu, Maui, and Lihue, once daily to Kona) but adds a wide-body 767-300 from Hawaiian. There is also a lot less feeder activity to Phoenix for Southwest than to Denver. Las Vegas is more of an end point for Southwest than a connection city and there the carrier would also face competition from Allegiant s well as Hawaiian.
Denver is the statement city. Flying from the mile-high city uses the long-range capabilities that Southwest has been waiting for with the 737-MAX. Starting service from Denver International sends a message to United that they can compete and won’t be scared off by increases in volume. Kona seems most likely as Honolulu is saturated from everywhere, and Southwest has no desire to compete with a 777-200 and an airline not afraid to lose some money to save some face. Lastly, it makes sound business sense for the carrier who will likely steal some O&D traffic but also connect a large volume of passengers east of Denver who are already paying a premium to get to the islands.
I think they will capture a lot of faithful Southwest customers that have long-awaited their entry into the market but now that they have some points and an option to get there with Southwest, might consider Hawaii over the Caribbean destinations Southwest flies.
What do you think? Was my source just guessing or hoping? Do you think Southwest will start flights to Hawaii from Denver?