Southwest Airlines‘ planned entrance to the Hawaii market is no surprise. The carrier’s reveal today that it will offer inter-island service comes as slightly less expected. Details remain scarce but speaking on Hawaii News Now Sunrise company president Tom Nealon indicated an “intent is to serve interisland.” He continued, “We think it’s a market that has little competition, if any. It’s very highly priced. We think we’ll offer a great product on interisland.” Separately, the carrier shared with at least one reporter that the mainland gateway airports will be San Jose, San Diego, Sacramento and Oakland.
Big @SouthwestAir news. The airline tells me it will start flying to Hawaii from these cities: Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, and Sacramento International Airport. Tickets should go on sale later this year. No start date for service yet. pic.twitter.com/LmsmZoDsHG
— Brian Sumers (@BrianSumers) May 3, 2018
Conspicuously absent from the four gateway cities is Los Angeles. Southwest runs a significant operation at LAX and also serves the city’s smaller airports, mostly with flights up the West Coast. But LAX operates at capacity and squeezing more flights in there is nearly impossible. LAX also currently offers significant capacity to the islands on multiple airlines. It will be difficult for Southwest to compete there without dropping fares to incredibly low levels. The carrier previously indicated it was willing to start a price war to build market share to Hawaii, but gaining share without such is better for the company and the industry overall.
The selected airports offer some flights within the west coast but also relatively strong onward passenger flow that could benefit from the Hawai’i connections, depending on flight timings.
Read More: Southwest readies a price war to Hawaii
Interisland service is coming
Hawaiian Airlines operates interisland service in a near monopoly state. Mokulele Airlines competes in some markets but its smaller Cessna aircraft deliver much smaller lift than the Boeing 717s Hawaiian flies. In that context the demand for competition appears ripe. Southwest believes it can deliver precisely that. And it should know the market well; the current Southwest EVP Revenue previously worked at Hawaiian.
The flights are short so they can sell relatively cheap and still deliver the revenue per block hour that airlines like to see. And the interisland operations deliver a huge portion of Hawaiian’s revenue. That is a market Hawaiian is not shy about defending. It fought off Mesa’s “go!” operation through aggressive fares and maybe a lawsuit or three. Southwest will show up in the islands with deeper pockets, but also greater operational challenges to make the local routes work well.
Labor costs in the islands are not cheap. Southwest will hire some local staff rather than outsource everything but in Nealon’s comments that appeared to focus mostly on ground staff, not in-flight crew. There are two ways that could play out for the inter-island operations.
- Flights between Hawaii and the mainland could each have one extra hop. This would generally fit within the crew hours limits and would not necessarily stress the staffing requirements. It also creates risk, however, as adding the extra flight pushes the crew much closer to duty hour limits, particularly for pilots. A delay at the mainland gateway could place the onward hop at risk. This approach also significantly limits the number of interisland routes and frequencies Southwest could serve. A handful of interisland flights every day would add only de minimus competition and capacity. That avoids the fare war (though Hawaiian would almost certainly retaliate on flights in that schedule slot) but also is not particularly convenient for travelers. One reason Hawaiian is so successful in the local market is the volume of flights offered. Travelers have massive flexibility, not just one or two flights each day.
- Another option is that the crew – and the planes – would spend an extra day in Hawaii, flying the interisland routes. This solves the frequencies issue and makes the offering more compelling, especially to the locals or business travelers. But it also comes with higher costs, both for crew and for the aircraft.
Aircraft maintenance costs are tied to many factors, including flight cycles, total hours and environment. Short flights drive up flight cycles without a commensurate spike in the overall hours. Getting too out of balance on that ratio leads to some maintenance work coming more frequently and increases costs (this topic was discussed on this week’s DLD episode; worth a listen if you have the time to spare).
717 is definitely a better choice for island hopping than the 73G, but that flying is really hard on airplanes. HA’s maintenance cost per block hour on the 717 is 2.5x DL’s
— Gavin Werbeloff (@Travel_Buddha) May 3, 2018
The environmental factors are also significant. Operating in the higher humidity and constantly in the salty ocean air means more wear and tear on the aircraft. Hawaiian’s 717s are better suited for the environment but even they see higher maintenance costs relative to those which operate in other environments. Southwest flies an average stage length just over 1,000 miles these days. The inter-island routes run much closer to 100-150 miles. It will average out with the longer trips between the mainland and the islands but if the carrier pursues higher frequency inter-island operations the maintenance costs could prove significant.
Southwest is accelerating the retirement of some older 737s in favor of newer 737 MAX aircraft. That can help delay some of the maintenance expense. But that savings comes with a significant up front cost. And the numbers will catch up eventually.
Southwest can still operate in the markets and probably even hold its own on the pricing side. The costs are the wildcard in this move, and until more details are known it is difficult to judge the financial impact of such a move.