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After months of speculation, Southwest announced overnight Wednesday night its intention to fly to Hawaii. The problem is, the announcement was light on details. The only concrete detail we have is that the airline will “begin selling tickets in 2018 for service to Hawaii.” But, first it will have to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards (ETOPS) before it can fly there.

With so few details, we can only speculate about where Southwest will fly. So, let’s speculate.

Where in Hawaii

The Southwest announcement was made via satellite from Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach alongside the Governor of Hawaii. With Honolulu being a major tourism destination and an entry point for all the wonderful places, food, culture and activities Hawaii has to offer, we can safely assume that Southwest will fly to Honolulu’s airport (HNL). But, where else?

As part of its reporting for the announcement, the Los Angeles Times got an interesting scoop from Southwest’s Executive Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer Andrew Watterson: “Southwest will fly… to Kauai, Honolulu and the island of Hawaii.”

Aircraft and Range

While only casually mentioning its newest aircraft type in the announcement, surely Southwest will be using its new 737 MAX 8 aircraft for the flights to Hawaii. With a Boeing-listed range of 3,515 nautical miles, the MAX 8 can cover a lot of ground… or water, after the airline gets its ETOPS certification. This kind of mileage theoretically puts Texas easily within range.

737 MAX 8 max range from HNL
3,515 nautical miles from HNL. Image by Great Circle Mapper.

Unfortunately, nonstop flights from Dallas Love Field (DAL) to Honolulu (HNL) aren’t going to happen with the 737 MAX 8. First, airlines are required to have extra fuel in the tanks in case something goes wrong. As part of ETOPS certification, Southwest will have to carry even more fuel in reserve than a route over land. Also, if weather patterns force the flight to take a longer route or fight stronger winds, no airline wants to wreck its schedule by having to work in a fueling stop along the way. So, airlines never operate at the bounds of the aircraft’s theoretical range.

Now, focusing on Hawaii flights, there are strong prevalent winds blowing from Hawaii to the West Coast. This causes longer flight times going from the mainland to Hawaii and shorter flights on the return. For example, American Airlines’ DFW-HNL route is scheduled one hour longer going to Hawaii than coming back. This effectively lowers the maximum range further, as a route is only going to be scheduled based on its longest flight.

Combining the effects of winds and ETOPS certification, let’s take Norwegian’s transatlantic routes as a proxy. Norwegian’s longest scheduled transatlantic 737 MAX 8 route is Newburgh (SWF) in the NYC area to Edinburgh (EDI) at 2,804 nautical miles. Let’s see how far that takes us, while also overlaying Southwest’s crew bases:

2804nm from HNL with WN crew bases

Finally, this gives us some front-runners for Southwest’s new routes: Oakland (OAK), Las Vegas (LAS) and Phoenix (PHX) to Hawaii. And maybe Southwest might stretch a flight from Denver (DEN) to Hawaii.

What are some other West Coast possibilities? Southwest has a significant presence in the following California airports: Los Angeles (LAX), San Diego (SAN), San Jose (SJC) and Sacramento (SMF).

Next, let’s look at the competition on these routes.

Competition

Routes Honolulu (HNL) Kauai (LIH) Big Island (KOA)
Oakland (OAK) Alaska, Hawaiian Alaska (3x weekly) Alaska
Las Vegas (LAS) Hawaiian (2-3x daily) n/a n/a
Phoenix (PHX) American, Hawaiian American American
Denver (DEN)* United United United
Los Angeles (LAX) American, Delta, Hawaiian,
United, Virgin America
American, Delta, Hawaiian, United American, Delta,
Hawaiian, United
San Diego (SAN) Alaska, Hawaiian Alaska (3x weekly) Alaska (3-4x weekly)
San Jose (SJC) Alaska, Hawaiian Alaska (4x weekly) Alaska (3x weekly)
Sacramento (SMF) Hawaiian n/a n/a

*DEN is a Southwest crew hub but on the outer reaches of the 737 MAX 8’s operational range.

A combination of having a crew base in Las Vegas (LAS), lots of connecting flown and little competition makes the LAS routes look especially tempting for Southwest revenue management. Oakland (OAK) and Phoenix (PHX) are tempting for the same reasons.

With the incredibly crowded market in Los Angeles (LAX) and tight competition for gate space, I can’t see Southwest adding many routes from LAX to start with. Southwest already runs about 9 departures per day from each of its 15 LAX gates, making it hard to add many more flights — especially from ETOPS aircraft (which take extra time to turn). Southwest’s gates in San Jose (SJC) and San Diego (SAN) are even busier, making it even harder to fit in flights.

Looking at competition and gate situation, Southwest flights from California’s capital Sacramento (SMF) to the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu (HNL) could make sense. But, it’d be interesting to see if there’s much demand on this market to justify adding the route.

Results of our speculation

With nothing firm to work off of besides Southwest’s mention of “Kauai, Honolulu and the island of Hawaii,” let’s conclude our speculation with guesses where Southwest will launch routes. If I had to guess about the first eight routes, I’d pick:

  • Oakland (OAK): Honolulu (HNL), Kauai (LIH)
  • Las Vegas (LAS): Honolulu (HNL), Kona (KOA)
  • Phoenix (PHX): Kauai (LIH), Kona (KOA)
  • Los Angeles (LAX): Honolulu (HNL)
  • Sacramento (SMF): Honolulu (HNL)

But, of course, we won’t know anything for sure until the airline makes its formal route announcements. In the meantime, know that Southwest will soon be flying to the Hawaiian islands. Time to work towards earning the Companion Pass!

Which routes do you think Southwest will launch to Hawaii?

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