Southwest Airlines executive offers in-depth update on Hawaii plans

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Southwest Airlines is still on track to fly between Hawaii and the mainland by the end of this year.

We caught Andrew Watterson, the airline’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer, in Honolulu Thursday, and asked him for the very latest.

Here’s what he had to say about the airline’s status on…

Flights: “We’re going to start off with our flights from the mainland. We’re in the process of getting FAA authorization for ETOPS (extended-range twin-engine operational performance standards) for extended operations. Once we have that in hand, we’ll start flying across the ocean to the islands from the mainland. Then we’ll look to compliment that with neighbor-island service. Nothing’s changed in that regard. It’ll be kind of a more modest size. It’ll be designed to work hand in glove with our mainland flying, because we’ll be in the same aircraft going to and from the mainland as we fly between the islands.”

Timing: “We’re well through the process right now of ETOPS authorization, however we don’t want to get ahead of the FAA and be presumptuous about when they’ll be finished, but we’ve always said that we’ll be selling tickets by the end of this year, and if we’re  fortunate, we’ll be flying from the mainland by the end of this year. But no one will remember the day we started. They’ll remember if we started poorly, so we want to do this properly and wait for the FAA to finish their process before we start ours.”

Prices: “We can’t talk about our pricing. The Department of Justice frowns on airlines discussing future pricing. But if you look at price on the market today to and from the mainland, we have the lowest cost of any airline operating that route, so we’d fully expect that we’d be able to lower prices compared to what’s available today, and we expect other airlines will then match us, and then I think everyone’s going to benefit from that.”

Jobs: “We’re not yet ready to announce how many jobs we’ll have, but we are ready to say that we’ll be having our own employees at all the airports above the wing. Those are the people you see in the airport. Those will all be Southwest employees. In Honolulu and Kahului, they’ll be also our employees below the wing. Those are outside servicing the aircraft. Then in Kona and Lihue, we’ll outsource those to vendors to provide that service.”

Airport changes: “We intend to have gates at obviously all four of the airports we’ve announced in the islands. In Honolulu, we’re having our own area built up. It was the area Island Air started before they unfortunately went bankrupt, and so we’ll continue that, and it’ll be ground-loading at the end of the Diamond Head concourse. We think it will be a new space, we think people will love it, and we can’t wait to provide hospitality to visitors and for locals.”

Planes: “We fly exclusively the 737. We have 752 by the end of this year. It’s an aircraft that’s served us well and it can fly both short and long. We did that today on the mainland, and we’ll fly that short and long to and from Hawaii.”

What’s unique about Southwest: “Southwest Airlines is a little bit different than a lot of other airlines. We have open seating, which means first come, first serve once you get on the aircraft. We also have a very good customer-friendly policy, so we don’t charge for bag fees for the first two bags. We think that’s inhospitable. And we have no change fees. We don’t think it costs us $200 to change your reservation, so we’re not going to charge you $200 to change your reservation, so that’s free.”

What NOT to expect from Southwest: “At Southwest, we really stress hospitality. So we have hospitality training, which is part of our ethos, and we will be authentically Southwest. We’re not going to try to be Hawaiian or pretend like we have the Aloha spirit if you will. We think the Aloha spirit matches with our hospitality, so we would hope that kamaaina would find that we are a good fit with the local culture, but we’ll be authentic to ourselves and not to try to pretend to be someone that we’re not.”

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