Southwest Airlines has started flights to Hawaii, initially offering limited availability as cheap as $99 round-trip. But even with the Companion Pass, I won’t take Southwest to the islands.
The Part That Southwest Got Right: Flight Times… Kind Of
Southwest’s flight times are daytime routes which can be helpful for a few reasons, but it’s not really on purpose. Southwest’s prior IT system didn’t allow the scheduling of red-eye flights. It seems that while they have pushed the boundaries on red-eye flights elsewhere, on the Hawaii flights they have chosen not to. They kind of backed into daytime flights which is in some ways better, in other ways, not so much.
Most of the competition flies in the evenings and lands early in the morning, much like trans-Atlantic flights. This is because there is a three-hour time change from Hawaii to the west coast on top of a four and a half hour flight (add some taxi time) makes for about an eight-hour departure to landing differential. Flights from other carriers often take off in the late evening (making checkouts tough) and land very early in the morning following a very short flight.
I dislike those red-eyes because the flight is so short but the changes are so dramatic that there is no way to properly adjust to the time difference without a rough first day back on the mainland (unless you fly further east in a premium cabin.)
The benefit of overnight flights, however, is that connections are widely available due to the early arrivals. With Southwest, limited options exist if flyers are not originating from the west coast. For example, two daily flights from Honolulu to Oakland offer arrival times of 5:45 pm or 11:50 pm. It’s possible to grab some connections from 6:45 pm in Oakland but most options have flown for the day, and of course, the near midnight arrival leaves no options whatsoever.
The other drawback is that Southwest flyers essentially “burn” a day. Passengers that fly at 9:30 am landing at 5:45 pm, don’t get their last day in Hawaii on vacation. Alternatively, passengers can enjoy the late flight (departing at 3:30 pm) but can’t make a connection flight in the evening if they are going anywhere but Oakland.
Separate Tickets for Most Cities
Live in the Bay Area? Great, you shouldn’t have much trouble ticketing. Denver and Phoenix also have easy through-ticketing options, but for the 96 other Southwest airports, some of them as important to the network as Chicago Midway, Houston Hobby, and Baltimore – customers will have to buy separate tickets.
Some of this comes down to flight times I believe, but it also reminds me of odd ticketing decisions Southwest management has made, either due to IT challenges, or other oddities. For example, Southwest struggled to make their Houston Hobby-Mexico City flights work but also didn’t allow through-ticketing from many other cities.
How do you show your customers that you offer flights to Hawaii, yet make it difficult for them to ticket form any place besides the west coast? For customers, how problematic is that?
Southwest’s Seats are Not the Problem
It should be noted that for most passengers, Southwest’s seats are not the problem. If you hold status on United, Delta, or American Airlines you will likely secure a free seat assignment in some version of “economy plus” with 36-38” of seat pitch. But if you are a commoner on those carriers, Southwest is dramatically better for passengers offering 34” of seat pitch (that’s more legroom) in every row of every plane, more in the exits and bulkhead.
The real problem in flying Southwest to and from Hawaii is that their planes are not outfitted for such flights (despite flying even longer routes across the mainland.) They don’t offer power outlets at any seat, that makes a long flight with awkward time changes challenging, especially when you don’t start on the west coast. Imagine a loyal Chicago Midway flyer spending the first three and a half hours of the day getting out to Oakland, spend an hour on the ground changing flights, then jump on another five and a half hour flight to Honolulu.
Everything you own is devoid of power (unless you have my favorite portable power pack), there is no inflight entertainment (Hawaiian, Delta, and some American flights will still offer it), and not even a meal or the ability to purchase one to occupy your time. Yes, upgraded snacks will be on offer but for traveling families it’s a very long day without substantive food, power, and thus, entertainment options.
I don’t fly with pets and have been clear that unless you are a veteran or have a genuine prescribed need for a true service dog- the dog should stay at home or should be paid for in compliance with pet policies. Unfortunately for those who would like to fly with their pets in the cabin for a fee – Southwest doesn’t offer it on their Hawaiian network (maybe this should be a bonus for me.)
Southwest’s Prices Will Be Higher Than People Think
Capacity to the islands was already at fever pitch before Southwest started nosing around flying west of California. Prior to Southwest’s Hawaii announcement, $300-400 roundtrips from the west coast were available on sales or during shoulder seasons. It is absolutely true that expansion by traditional Hawaii stakeholders was amplified once Southwest indicated their intention to fly there. United, in particular, added a significant amount of capacity.
Other carriers have had to fill seats on all of these new flights. Alaska Air is (perhaps counterintuitively) the largest carrier to the Hawaiian islands added even more seats as a result of their acquisition of Virgin America. Prices have dropped to fill seats and I, personally, wouldn’t pay a dime over $350 roundtrip from the west coast to Hawaii right now.
Despite offering attention-grabbing headline fares of as low as $49 each way, those flights didn’t last long. In the next few months, roundtrip fares are offered between LAX and Honolulu at $600-1300(!) routinely or non-stops from the Bay Area as cheap as $164 in one direction, unfortunately, the other way will run you $599.
Looking out further in advance, these Southwest prices look better in September once the kids are back in school, dropping to as low as $224. However, these are one-way prices. The competition offers one-stop roundtrips from $287 or nonstops from $358, at the very minimum 10% cheaper than Southwest, but most days in the fall, everyone else is less than half Southwest’s price.
Southwest is generally more expensive than other carriers. I outlined this previously to the shock, horror and utter contempt of some commenters in a post about the Companion Pass losing some of its luster due to the airline’s lack of competitiveness on some routes. Statistically, Southwest is more expensive 60% of the time and within $5 (higher or lower) than the competition 5% of the time. Nearly 2/3rds of the time, travelers could get a cheaper flight on another carrier, usually substantially so.
Southwest just invested a ton of money into the new aircraft that will fly the routes, ETOPs Certification, training for staff and crew and the investment in opening new destinations across the islands. They will want to recuperate that investment and they already have pent-up demand from customers who have wanted to be able to use some of their Rapid Rewards points to visit Hawaii but haven’t been able to this point.
While the “Southwest Effect” appears to be helping travelers get to the island for less, it’s only valid when they fly other carriers. In this instance, carriers that fly to Hawaii have strengthened their market position and are holding their ground with their customers rather than a low fare competitor coming to steal market share from inflated, stagnant prices (as the term used to mean.)
Yes, you get two bags checked for free with Southwest. Except that they aren’t really free (you pay for them in higher fares) and that only matters if every passenger on your itinerary needs two bags checked (my family wouldn’t need six checked bags and six carry-ons for even a month-long trip.)
Flights Are Going to be Jam Packed
There are lots of families that now hold the companion pass, especially in California, and others that have made Southwest their carrier. Many loyalists have amassed hundreds of thousands of Rapid Rewards points just waiting to be spent. The anticipation is so palpable that there have been announcements about the announcements of partial information about Southwest’s Hawaiian expansion.
Flights will be full, and that’s not fun for me or anyone else.
While some passengers will no doubt take advantage of Southwest’s new flights to the islands, I won’t be one of them despite holding a buy-one, get-one-free Companion Pass. Flights will be very, very full. Flights depart and arrive from the west coast with very little transit time making for very hard flights. Even with the companion pass, most days I found are more than 2:1 the cost of other carriers who already offer power, catering, and entertainment options that Southwest does not.
What do you think? Will you be flying Southwest to the Hawaiian islands? Does their model work outside of the west coast?