Southwest Airlines had a big party at its Dallas headquarters on Wednesday to unveil its first Boeing jet capable of long flights over water. Its current fleet can't get to Hawaii. Now there's more buzz than ever that Southwest is preparing to fly beyond the blue horizon.
The largest U.S. airline that doesn't fly to Hawaii, Southwest used to use ATA Airlines as its semi-official Hawaii extension, but that ended when ATA shut down in 2008 after losing a lucrative military transport contract and running out of cash to pay its jet fuel bills.
Southwest itself never had ETOPS authority for long flights over water and didn't fly the right model planes to obtain it. A big part of Southwest's discount model was to control its maintenance costs by flying only two models of aircraft - the largest airline in the world to fly an all-Boeing fleet.
The situation began to change when industry consolidation left Southwest competing against three giants - United, Delta and American. Seeing a need to bulk up, Southwest abandoned its policy of sticking to organic growth and last year acquired Air Tran, a regional carrier strongest in the Southeast, including Atlanta, which had been the largest city underserved by Southwest.
From our point of view in Hawaii, the more significant thing about Air Tran is that it has ETOPS authority, because it has flights to the Caribbean.
Just as United announced resumption of service to Hilo but then assigned the route to its Continental operation, Southwest could have begun Hawaii service rapidly by assigning the route to Air Tran. Instead, Southwest appears to have decided to take its time and wait until it has acquired economical new jets for the routes, and integrated Air Tran with the mothership.
So, more than year after Southwest first began hinting at an interest in serving Hawaii, how close is the company, really, to coming here?
Southwest says it hopes by the end of the second quarter to integrate its Air Tran operation sufficiently to operate on a single FAA certificate, a certificate which necessarily would include ETOPS authority. Assuming delays, because this sort of thing nearly always takes longer than expected, Southwest might have that long-flights-over-water permission by the end of summer or some time in the fall.
The airline says its next move is to negotiate with its pilots and flight attendants what their rates will be for the route. Southwest has good labor relations generally, but working this out will still take a certain amount of time.
The longer it waits, the better the economy will be. On the other hand, the longer it waits, the more Hawaiian and Alaska can secure routes for themselves, and there is also the wild card of Allegiant, a smaller discount carrier which is waiting for its own ETOPS certificate so it can launch summer flights to the islands.