Southwest Airlines said it would inaugurate its much-anticipated Hawaii service from four West Coast cities, most likely early in 2019, and it will offer interisland service.
Cities that are getting the nod for the long-distance nonstops include Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento and San Diego; Southwest also said it may eventually add other cities in the west such as Las Vegas and Phoenix. In addition to Honolulu, the carrier will serve other points in the island chain, including airports in Kauai, Maui and the island of Hawaii.
The fact that Los Angeles is not on the initial list of gateways raised some eyebrows among airline observers, but Southwest does not have a big presence at LAX. It does fly to Burbank, however, and Long Beach is also considered a possibility for new flights by the Texan carrier.
Southwest is planning to bring its trademark low fares to the Hawaii market and will continue its contrarian “bags fly free” policy, which should be especially popular with leisure travelers. However, the budget line’s lack of a full meal service, advance seat assignments or a premium class section might give pause to other travelers.
A long way from land
At six and a half hours’ duration, the new services are a distinct departure for the carrier, which has long specialized in offering short flights and frequent stops in hundreds of domestic markets (although in recent years it has added points in Latin America and the Caribbean to its route map.)
Southwest only operates planes that are part of the Boeing 737 family, and most of them would not have the range to make a nonstop trip over the Pacific. To make the service viable, Southwest said it is buying the airframe manufacturer’s most advanced narrowbody model, the 737-MAX aircraft. Among other things, the jets must be specially equipped to fly over the ocean to win FAA approval for the so-called “ETOPS” flights, or extended twin-engine operations. That is because planes on the route spend much of their flying time hours away from the nearest available runway.
That is a touchy subject for Southwest these days, following the Apr. 17 engine explosion aboard a flight from New York to Dallas, damaging and the fuselage and forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia with one working engine. One of the 144 passengers aboard suffered fatal injuries and at least a half-dozen others were injured. It was the first accident-related death on a Southwest flight in the carrier’s long history.
Southwest is now complying with an emergency order from the FAA that requires it – and any other airline using the CFM engine type – to use ultrasound technology to inspect engines for cracks and other signs of metal fatigue.
By the time the Hawaii flights are launched next year, of course, the accident will no longer be news. But judging from comments posted online on the Beat of Hawaii, a news site for the state, it’s certainly on the minds of some fliers. “I’d be very concerned about the SW safety record lately,” one person wrote. “Especially flying that long over the ocean.”