Southwest Airlines temporarily slashes Hawaii schedule as part of latest coronavirus cuts
Even Southwest Airlines' successful new Hawaii service is not immune from the novel coronavirus pandemic. The carrier is significantly scaling back its service to the islands just over a year after its first aloha.
The Dallas-based carrier will suspend all but two of its 12 daily flights between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii starting April 5, Southwest president Tom Nealon said on the airline's blog Thursday. Only its twice-daily service between Oakland (OAK) and Honolulu (HNL) will continue for the foreseeable future.
Southwest will also continue to offer limited service between Honolulu and Kahului (OGG) on Maui, Kona (KOA) and Hilo (ITO) on the big island, and Lihue (LIH) on Kauai. Those changes also begin April 5.
"As a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine protocol begins today for all customers arriving in the Hawaiian Islands, we anticipated demand for our service to the islands would continue to fall sharply," said Nealon. He added that the limited schedule is "intended to be temporary and nimble."
Hawaii's two-week quarantine has prompted most carriers to slash their schedules to the state. Alaska Airlines, the second largest to the islands from the mainland U.S. by flight numbers, is cutting the majority of its service to Hawaii as part of a 70% drawdown of its schedule. Hawaiian Airlines is suspending all of its mainland flying except one daily flight each to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) to provide "essential" connectivity.
Southwest is a relative newcomer to the Hawaii market, having started service last March. The airline grew to the islands even as it cut capacity elsewhere owing to the Boeing 737 MAX grounding.
In January, Nealon said the airline's Hawaii service was performing "very well." He named the islands as among Southwest's key growth markets alongside the likes of Baltimore/Washington (BWI) and Denver (DEN).
No one, however, forecast just how much of a toll the COVID-19 pandemic would take on the travel industry.
Demand has fallen faster than most airlines expected. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported that just 239,234 people passed through airport checkpoints across the U.S. on March 25 -- that's just 10% of the number that flew the same day a year ago.
“This is 9/11, SARS and the Great Recession all rolled into one,” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told employees in a webinar Wednesday viewed by TPG.
Southwest has already cancelled a quarter of its schedule, or around 1,000 flights, including all international service. The airline will expand that to 1,500 flights on Friday until a previously-announced 20% capacity reduction is implemented in mid-April.
Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest, warned at the outset that the coronavirus pandemic could be "worse than 9/11" -- an outlook that looks prescient at this point.
The Senate has passed a bill that includes more than $50 billion in aid to airlines. Designed to bridge the industry through the crisis, the package includes $25 billion in grants earmarked for non-executive compensation and benefits, and $25 billion in loans to cover other fixed costs. Both aspects of the deal include strings for airlines that take the aid, ranging from maintaining staffing levels to the possibility of the government taking an equity stake.
The measure still has to be approved by the House of Representatives and signed into law by the president before funds can begin flowing.
Southwest has not said whether it will take the government assistance. However, most carriers are expected to accept at least the grants for employee compensation, which come with fewer strings attached than that loans.
Featured by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images.