KAILUA-KONA — Southwest Airlines is coming to Hawaii, but there are still a few layovers before the airline officially touches down.
Gary C. Kelly, Southwest’s board chairman and chief executive officer, said in the company’s quarterly profit report released Thursday that the airline intends to fly to Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole, Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Lihue Airport on Kauai and Kahului Airport on Maui.
Kelly was quoted in the report saying, “We continue to expect to begin selling tickets in 2018 …” for flights to Hawaii, a distinction Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins clarified.
“What we did today was essentially announce that … Kona is one of the four airports where we want to file permits and begin the physical work that would prepare for a hopeful operation by Southwest Airlines,” he explained.
The company is still waiting for extended-range twin-engine operational performance standards certification, which is required for extended over-water flights, from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before announcing official route plans to the island state.
However, Hawkins said routes are “pretty firm” at this point, adding the company plans to fly out of California to Hawaii on a non-stop basis.
“So that implies multiple points in California, of course, soon to be announced that will allow connecting service to most of the mainland through our network,” he added.
Southwest sells tickets for flights up to six months before they’re scheduled, which implies a projected timeline that could see Southwest arrivals to and departures from Hawaii before mid-2019.
Still, Hawkins referenced past comments by Kelly expressly stating that Southwest has “an internal goal to actually operate by the end of (2018),” assuming FAA approval can be procured in time.
Southwest’s entrance into the Hawaiian market would bolster visitor arrivals and spending, which continue to rise.
According to statistics released Thursday by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, visitor spending increased 10.1 percent in Hawaii to $4.82 billion over the first quarter of 2018, while visitor spending in March alone jumped by an even higher rate of 13.5 percent.
Visitor arrivals jumped 9.4 percent in the quarter to nearly 2.5 million, due mostly to air service. Air service arrivals actually jumped 9.7 percent during the quarter, offsetting a 2.5 percent dip in cruise ship arrivals to just under 40,000 visitors.
Southwest is also assessing the possibility of entering the interisland air travel market. Island Air, a prime provider of that service, filed for bankruptcy last October, leaving interisland flights to Hawaiian and Mokulele airlines.
Hawkins said Southwest is “moving toward a decision very soon” on the possibility of interisland service but could offer no official word as of Thursday.