Southwest Airlines planned to fly to Hawaii for a full decade before taking off for the islands in 2018. There were early signs of things that were unlike any other airline, but it wasn’t then clear where it was heading or how Hawaii might become a part of the problem. Following the Southwest meltdown that occurred last month, we reflect on what we saw from the outset.
An early meeting with Southwest’s executives in Hawaii.
Beat of Hawaii editors went to Honolulu twice, joined by others in the press, to meet with Southwest’s leadership team. This was first on the occasion of their Hawaii announcement and second upon their inaugural flight to Honolulu. It was exciting to see ten years of hard work come to fruition for the carrier that had become a legendary behemoth. And it was fascinating to meet the people behind this vast and long-awaited development.
The first signs Southwest’s technology and mindset were amiss.
One of the people Beat of Hawaii editor Jeff interviewed was Adam Decaire, VP of Network Planning at Southwest. Adam told him he’d started as a ramp agent in Cleveland for Southwest in 1996. Notably, CEO Bob Jordan also worked his way up, starting as a computer programmer at Southwest 34 years ago.
Jeff asked affable Adam about the fact that Southwest couldn’t then route people from or to any cities further afield from Hawaii than Phoenix. Decaire told him that it was a technology limitation due to their reservation system at the time, although it was something that they would surely later address.
Someone else who Jeff met with was Andy Watterson, Southwest’s Chief Operating Officer. Andy was poached following a relatively short stay at Hawaiian Airlines. While at Hawaiian, Watterson was responsible for scheduling, route planning, revenue management, and ticket pricing. He filled the position previously held by Avi Mannis, now Hawaiian’s senior VP, chief marketing and communications officer.
In meeting the Decaire, Watterson, the then SW president Tom Nealon, plus others, he was struck with a sense that Southwest is a smart, extremely hardworking, tight-knit group beyond what we’ve seen with the other airlines that fly to Hawaii. And there was also an insular, cavalier frame of mind that we’d also not witnessed previously among the group. The best way to describe it is that it seemed that Southwest’s attitude was you’re either with us or against us. Black and white; nothing gray. While we didn’t give it much thought then, last December’s events caused us to revisit those meetings in our minds and discuss them many times over.
As an aside, given that it is such a small world, we suspect that while Watterson might be next in line to run Southwest, Mannis could be next up at Hawaiian.
MAX became a huge issue for Southwest’s Hawaii plans.
Southwest, being the largest 737 Max operator, already had hundreds of jets on order, and, as we were told then, one of the plans was for their exclusive use on Hawaii flights, being some of Southwest’s longest routes. To Hawaii, the efficiencies of the MAX would be of even greater benefit. Decaire later said about the 737 MAX, “You can’t overemphasize how much change it’s been for Southwest Airlines compared to the other carriers.”
Southwest was soon to face the consequences of two unrelated 737 MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that would take that plane critical to them out of service due to a global grounding that lasted from March 2019 to November 2020.
Only Southwest doesn’t operate overnight flights. Why?
While that may not seem like an important distinction, it actually is. Those are seen as highly effective for airlines, both for reasons of operational efficiency to get planes where they are needed in a timely way and for the convenience of many Hawaii visitors who prefer to spend the entire last day of their vacation in Hawaii, then return to the mainland overnight.
When Southwest began Hawaii flights, the airline was transitioning to its new Amadeus reservation platform to replace the prior antiquated system. One benefit is that Amadeus would clearly allow the scheduling of red-eye Hawaii flights. The capability was to be there, yet, nearly five years later, they still haven’t started red eyes.
In another interview, Decaire said, “I’d like to be able to fly red eyes just because it would give you some more opportunities to serve the customer need. I believe there’s a customer need for people that are going from west to east that want to fly after the business day,” clearly addressing Hawaii, where a significant number of return flights are overnight.
“When it’s right, and the operation is feeling comfortable that they can do it and they can maintain it for our employees, then we’ll go ahead and turn that on.”
But that still hasn’t happened. We’ve heard rumors that ongoing issues could include labor agreements.
From point to point to some quasi-hubs?
Decaire said that they were going to develop what he termed focus cities. That, to “get to every other point on our network easily. We’re not saying hub and spoke, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to leverage bigger operations so that you can connect to every spot.”
Was it a coincidence that airlines with hubs recovered quickly following the massive east coast storms, whereas Southwest’s point-to-point system could not? Many have wondered whether further development along the line of “focus cities” could be one component in the bigger plan to keep Southwest from a repeat of its devastating breakdown. In the industry, speculation is that it would help, in conjunction with far better systems for positioning equipment and personnel.
Decaire said of Southwest’s network, “If you’re in Providence, Rhode Island, I’d love to get you to Hawaii. Today, I can’t even get you there or back. I want to sell you that service. We’re building the network to be able to do that. But we’re going to stay true to our roots: a point-to-point carrier.”
How’s Southwest Hawaii doing, and why its interisland focus?
When asked about Hawaii, Decaire said, “It felt like we should be very successful. But you start to listen to the outsider sometimes, and you’re like, ‘Hmm, I’m going to have mixed feelings about this. Maybe they’re seeing something I didn’t see.'”
“In Hawaii, if you weren’t flying inter-island and you were just flying from California… other carriers will put you on other airlines. They’ll put you on Hawaiian. They all have an agreement with Hawaiian, but we don’t do that. If I want to move you or the flight has to cancel and you need to get back to the mainland, I can move you now on an inter-island flight. And now all those flights leverage each other way over there in Hawaii five hours away from the mainland. To me, there’s a strength in some of that.” But Decaire did note that their Hawaii service is putting additional wear and tear on the aircraft.
Southwest’s issues stand apart from its “very good” Hawaii flights.
While there are several key issues to resolve at Southwest, their problems don’t include the flights themselves. BOH recently sent editor Jeff out on two Southwest Hawaii flights, and his report back was even better than we’d expected.
Regarding their mainland to Hawaii flights, Jeff reported, “Southwest is an airline with a unique offering; there’s no doubt about it… It’s in no way objectionable or ‘second class’… what SWA offers is in a league by itself compared to the other airlines flying to Hawaii. Instead of economy class, we’d say it is Southwest class.”
In fact, Jeff found the overall experience on Southwest better than on virtually any other economy-class flight to Hawaii that he’d experienced. That says a lot.
Could Southwest Hawaii flights themselves be better? Yes, of course.
Jeff commented that the snacks were awful and the lack of any options was unacceptable. He complained similarly about Hawaiian Airlines’ food and snack options. Then too, the Southwest WiFi wasn’t reliable. The WiFi is being addressed as part of a huge $2 billion upgrade now in process. The lack of power ports was another issue that is also being addressed with new larger space bins for carry-on bags.