Flight Reviews: Hawaiian Vs. Southwest Showdown

Since Southwest Airlines started flying interisland, we have intended to do back-to-back flights with them and Hawaiian Airlines. That way, we could share the various aspects of both experiences. And today was that day.

BOH editor Jeff told no one and, at 11 am, bought an early afternoon interisland flight on Southwest and the return soon thereafter on Hawaiian Airlines. Here are how those flights went and our impartial and unsolicited reviews. One standout you’ll see in the photos is the legroom difference that really surprised us.

Jeff did not check baggage so he didn’t have that experience or include it in our ratings. That would have given additional points to SWA for their free baggage policy. We also didn’t look at policies including change fees. See what just happened to us: $700 Fare Change On “No-Change-Fee” $100 Hawaii Airfare.

He obtained electronic boarding passes online. Jeff was offered an upgrade to his boarding position on Southwest and various seat upgrades on Hawaiian, and he declined both of these extra-cost options. The fare, including taxes and fees, was $39 on Southwest and $39 on Hawaiian. Neither airline knew that Jeff was coming. He just snuck away to the airport on Kauai for today’s article.

Another side note is that there was pretty-much wide open availability to buy the $39 seats, even at the very last minute. We have to say, who doesn’t love that price?

Southwest Airlines review interisland.

On entering the plane it was noticeably dark other than for the lighting. The reason is that Southwest asks passengers to lower their shades and turn their air vents on before departing the plane. That was to keep the plane cool, which in fact, it was. It was odd that most people never opened the shades throughout the flight even though there were great views to be had on both sides of the aircraft.

It appeared that the plane was about 2/3 full.

Ticketing 10/10.

No nonsense and quick to book. Nothing got in the way. It took approximately 4 minutes.

Boarding 9/10.

The boarding process was unfamiliar. The way it worked was that you entered the waiting room pictured below and found the vertical sign that represented the group that you would be boarding with. Then that group was called to board together. Jeff missed the announcement of how it worked, but ultimately it wasn’t too hard to figure out.


Plane 10/10.

The aircraft was a Boeing 737-800 (not a MAX), and it was by no means new. The average age of this model at SWA is 7 years. But Jeff reports that it was absolutely whistle-clean, in pristine condition. There was no appearance of wear and tear or dirt and it all looked new and well kept. The overhead bins were of the newer type that accommodates most carry-ons (seen below), similar to what Alaska switched to not long ago. Southwest said they are adding more overhead bin space in 2023. The 737 is somewhat quieter than the older 717.

Hawaiian Vs. Southwest Airlines Review

Seating 10/10.

The seats were comfortable for the short flight. The leg room was ample, and distinctly more than on Hawaiian, as you can see from the comparison photos. Jeff was seated in the 5th row, aisle seat, and is six feet tall. He noted a distance between his knees and the seat back of at least four inches. The seats recline.


Flight Attendants 10/10.

The flight attendants were pleasant, casual yet professional. Nothing was lacking. Since there wasn’t much service on a 22-minute flight, the interaction was limited.

Service 9/10.

The cabin crew delivered water in open plastic cups to those who wanted it. At first, it wasn’t clear that the water was bottled rather than from the plane’s potable water system. After the service, Jeff saw the flight attendant disposing of the plastic bottles from which the water had been poured.

On-time 10/10.

The flight boarded and departed on time.

Hawaiian Airlines review interisland.

Your editors have used this aircraft type for hundreds of flights over about 20 years since the 717 fleet first arrived. We seldom think about it. It is perhaps similar to how others might see a commuter train or bus. But today, it came into contrast with a new competitor.

The plane was less than 1/2 full.

Ticketing 9/10.

No problem to speak of, but when contrasted with the Southwest purchase five minutes earlier, the Hawaiian site was maybe 2 minutes slower, even though Jeff had a frequent flyer login which made the payment part faster. You must also navigate through the offer of car rentals and accommodations within the flight booking workflow.

Boarding 9/10.

The boarding process was very familiar. Passengers congregated near the front to get in line as soon as their zone was called. Jeff was in the last group to board. In the end, it was neither better nor worse than Southwest.

Plane 8/10.

The aircraft was a Boeing 717, and it was also by no means new. Seats have been replaced with newer, lighter ones and are non-reclining. While it might not have been noticed otherwise, the aircraft had a distinctly less kept-up appearance overall. The overhead bins are smaller than on SWA, and the 717 is noisier than the 737.


The carpeting was stained in many places throughout the plane as per this example.

Hawaiian Airlines Review - legroom

Seating 8/10.

The seats were comfortable for the short flight. Leg room, however, was considerably less than on Southwest, as you can see from the two photos. Jeff was seated in the 9th row, aisle seat. He noted a distance between his knees and the seat back of perhaps one to one and a half inches. The seats do not recline.

Hawaiian Airlines Review - Legroom

Flight Attendants 10/10

The flight attendants were both pleasant and attentive. They have a distinct island feel that differentiates them from any mainland carrier. There was nothing lacking.

Service 10/10.

The cabin crew dispensed a service consisting of either a packaged water or juice beverage. In the mornings they also offer coffee.

On-time 9/10.

The flight boarded and departed about 13 minutes later than scheduled.

Our review scores and takeaway.

Southwest scored 68 out of 70 based on our experience. Hawaiian scored 63 out of 70. The quality of the Southwest product was much better than we expected.

We wouldn’t hesitate to fly either airline for interisland flights. Traveling to the mainland are an entirely different beast, to be considered separately.

Please let us know about your Hawaiian and Southwest flight review experiences.

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111 thoughts on “Flight Reviews: Hawaiian Vs. Southwest Showdown”

  1. Aloha Beat of Hawaii!
    I wanted to follow up with you on my attempt to get reservations for my Ohana to come visit me on Maui in February. 2 people.
    Hawai’ian airlines is charging them a total of $4700 to fly from San Francisco to Maui with stopover in Oahu. After being on the phone with Hawaiian airlines for 6+ hours of being hung up on and treated like a blight on the planet.
    Extra seat charges for bigger people.
    They require that they buy two seats per person and cheap seats in the back.
    Just FYI.
    Mahalo nui loa for all you do.

      1. Actually it’s $4634.00
        Two over 6’5 people that are wide as well. One played college football.
        The thing that got me was them being hung up on/disconnected and even had one person tell them they should charter a plane.
        Hawai’ian Aloha?
        I don’t think so.

    1. Hawaiians support HAL and want for Tourists to do the same, why pay more without equal benefits for doing so? SWA so far is treating passengers much better in many ways and with a lower cost. I understand that Hawaiians expect to be raked over the coal by their Elected Politicians, maybe that’s why they like HAL, they’re used to the treatment. What else could it be!

  2. Last time we flew back from BI was the time we decided to no longer use SW. They let C group just invade the line and enter with A. There was no rope, no workers guiding people and it was so nasty crowded!

    1. Everyone has “Choices” to make, the Only time that I have heard of this occurring was when the amount of passengers boarding was extremely low. Even with the groups mingled and boarding together the amount was extremely small due to missing connectors and bad weather in certain parts of the country, passengers were wondering if the flight would be canceled. It’s Your Choice to choose, don’t allow anyone to stand in your way. You do know what they say about the Door not Hitting you on the way out, Right?

  3. From the descriptions of Both Airlines procedures from purchase to flight take off I would seek SWA Flights over Hawaiian for sure. SWA certainly has the better Aircraft, Overhead Storage, Leg Room, Cleanliness and Reclining Seating. Hawaiian lags Behind in every category except where personnel are involved, they are Tied in those. I can experience Aloha on Either, SWA would be my first choice. Thank You BOH, I appreciate how you did this and can hardly wait for the long Pacific Flight to and from the Mainland.

    1. Hi Ernie.

      Thanks so much for saying that and for your input. It was fun but it was also a lot of work done in those 5 hours.


  4. One other thing to note – SW uses the same plane to continue to the West Coast. So you have to clear agricultural inspection before boarding – if you just wanted to hop to another island for a day to bring back some fresh fruit or a plant from a family member or farmers market, you can only do so on HA. 0Before boarding SW, it will be confiscated.

  5. We have scheduled our first interisland trip for next February. LIH to KOA. I chose Hawaiian over SWA. We are, however, riding 1st class. Simply because the fare difference was less than the cost of checking 2 bags per person. Less than 1 hour non-stop, so we’ll see how the seats are then.

  6. Just wanted to reply to comments about buying local. As a SWA employee I can assure you SWA revenues do go to the Hawaii, and a LOT of it! The money spent to rent gates and offices at the airport- not to mention all the hotels and transportation costs for flight crews – all that benefits the state and local counties. We not only hire local residents for ground positions (all pay local taxes), but we have hundreds of flight crew that live on island and pay HI income taxes. (SWA did a big hiring campaign in HI so I wouldn’t be surprised if it is a crew base in the future). Plus, SWA is Helping locals by keeping the cost to travel low! Who doesn’t love $39ow fares?!


    1. The Bias among some is quite clear towards HAL. HAL is a Corporation just as SWA is, HAL has decided to go in a different direction, SWA is here to take up the slack, give them the same courtesy and chance.

  7. Aloha guys,
    Interesting article – have you done a similar comparison on one of their flights to mainland? Would really like to know your thoughts?
    Haven’t flown either carrier to the islands; fly SWA often domestic as well as Alaska..curious as to the differences in onboard comfort and service flying to Hawaii..Mahalo

    1. Hi Cheryl.

      Thanks. As mentioned in the article, we do plan to do a similar review/comparison on mainland to Hawaii flights.


    2. I’m going to say something and I didn’t want to. We have been coming to Hawaii for a great many years. We were first loyal United fans for a good many years. Then United started giving us poor routing. Spending 19 hours to get to Hawaii is nuts. We then went Alaska. At first their routing was good and then they became poor. It hurt coming into LIH late and seeing the SW plane before us. Coming from Northwest Alaska is your best option. I have a University Prof friend who loves SW. They do a lot of traveling all over the world. We started using SW because their routing was good for us. I have found SW service to be second to none. You get a real person on the line and they know what they’re doing. It takes a trip or two to understand SW.

    3. I will never fly a single aisle again between mainland and Hawaii. We had the most unpleasant, bouncy and rough flight on AK few years back. Seat belt light on the whole way! Took 8 hours instead of 6 because we had to add more fuel in Portland (from Seattle). Then my husband couldn’t use bathroom because so bouncy! I’ll pay whatever for wide body anyday…so much smoother!

  8. I love Hawaiian I love how they treat their people and have two small dogs thst are high risk and they always take care of them.

  9. Your review of SWA and HAL on interisland flights is similar to that of my experience flying HNL-OGG-HNL in late July, flying over on SWA, and flying back on HAL. I will say in comparison to equipment, SWA beats HAL hands down even if you are flying on HAL’s A321s, as I have heard those seats in coach are not the most comfortable. I have found SWA’s seating on its new planes to be quite satisfactory and was happy to be able to fly on the MAX-8’s interisland and get an understanding of how their interisland and mainland operations work. They are no muss, no fuss and you outlined that in your description of the booking. HAL – they are okay for the interisland service they provide, but long gone are the days that trip was memorable on them.

    1. I’ll never fly Hawaiian again. You can book flights and stuff like that no problem but if you need to change flights their customer service is terrible. I have had two instances where I needed to change a coworkers flight and my own. Their website doesn’t work to change flights so you have to call the airlines and their customer service on the phone is the worst. Being on hold for almost two hours (because everyone is calling them to change flights since it doesn’t work on their website) and then one of the two instances I got disconnected and the service rep did not call me back despite taking my contact information down so I had to hold again. Southwest’s website actually works for changing flights and I can do so in a few taps.

      1. Agreed, and you know what, the price differences are not extraordinarily large, and you even get the credit if the flight you change to is cheaper than the first one. I was impressed by the ease of the SWA system. When I had to make a change to my name (the letter ‘d’ didn’t show up in my full name) I had to call HAL and stay on the phone for what seemed to be a long time just to put in a letter for my name. I almost thought I was going to need to cancel and redo it just because of the name issue. Turns out not, but being happy about that level of service affirms just how hard it is to deal with HAL in the first place as a customer.

  10. All that was great information thanks , it would be more useful if you did the same regarding the mainland to me that is the real test . Inter island is a dash compared to the mainland as you know .Aloha

      1. I fly to the west coast and back once or twice a month and I prefer Southwest to Hawaiian.

        Flights on Southwest are more affordable if you book very early, its more of toss up when it gets closer to the flight date.

        Southwest has a better cancellation policy/user experience. You can go on the app and cancel, it takes less than a minute. For Hawaiian you need to call their phone number and it can take as long as 45 minutes to get to a service agent.

        Southwest has newer planes that provide wifi access for entertainment on your mobile device, Hawaiian has the older headrest touchscreen units that are slow.

        However Hawaiian has direct flights to Portland and Seattle so for those flights all things being equal I prefer Hawaiian.

    1. Hey Ernest! They’re planning on doing the Mainland Route in the future, BTW… Great Name, and I am interested in seeing what will be their determination. I typically fly United from Newark non-stop to Honolulu without any concerns, it’s only when connections are present that things can be fouled up. I think that BOH did a very good assessment of the inter-island flights and am certain that the Mainland will be the same.

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