SOUTH KOHALA COAST— Speaking to scores of officials representing local government, business and the community joined by representatives of Southwest Airlines, Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau executive director Ross Birch offered a warm welcome to an airline many are thrilled to see taking to Hawaii’s skies.
“They are friendly, and they’re passionate about hospitality, and they’re excited to be our partners,” Birch told the crowd gathered Tuesday at The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort. “We welcome them to the islands.”
Tuesday marked a celebration of Southwest Airlines’ arrival to the islands in what many see has the potential to make an enormous impact on air travel in the state, both between Hawaii and the mainland as well as interisland.
The event comes just days after the airline’s inaugural flight arrived at Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport from Oakland International Airport on Sunday, bringing with it about 165 passengers, according to a report by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
The carrier will run its first interisland service within Hawaii between Honolulu and Kahului, four times daily in each direction starting April 28. Service between Honolulu and Kona, also four times daily in each direction, will follow that starting May 12.
Service between Maui and the west coast will kick off April 7 with an inaugural flight from Oakland to Kahului. About a month later Southwest will kick off another route to run between the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport and Honolulu.
Details on other service routes, including previously announced plans for San Diego and Sacramento, as well as for Lihue, Kauai, are still forthcoming.
Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendy Laros said she’s excited about the opportunity Southwest means both for bringing new visitors to the island as well as giving more options to those who live here.
“Air service is key to strengthening our economy and also to give our residents opportunities to travel,” she said.
The evening didn’t bring any new announcements regarding Southwest’s plans for air service or what the longer-term future holds. Instead, it was an opportunity for those representing the county and advocates for local business to hear about Southwest’s story from the company’s own representatives, many of whom remarked on what they see as shared values between the airline and Hawaii.
Laurie Barnett, managing director for communication and outreach, pointed to the attitude of their employees as one example.
“They treat people on our aircraft like guests in their home, and they share that aloha spirit,” she said. “And that’s what I love about us coming together, because something about the Southwest culture blends so nicely with the aloha spirit we feel from you.”
Wil Okabe, County of Hawaii managing director, also spoke to how he sees Southwest’s plan align with the county administration’s own goals and said Southwest’s arrival into the market represents “great opportunities for the citizens of Hawaii.”
With that opportunity, he said, the county will also need to concentrate on local infrastructure to be able to accommodate more visitors and be able to provide a quality experience for visitors, including a need to develop accommodations on the island’s east side.
“I know on the east side, we really have to look into our infrastructure and try and develop some hotels and some areas where they can stay,” he said. “Otherwise they’ll be coming here to Kona and they’ll be driving across the Daniel K. Inouye Highway to get to the Hilo side.”
Birch too spoke to the need for partnerships with all stakeholders to provide services and products that can fully accommodate an increase while maintaining a quality visitor experience for those who will be coming here.
“We’ve been very fortunate that our island has had a gap or an opportunity where we have space to grow to still stay within a manageable amount of a tourism increase,” he said.
Birch said he’s confident that everyone is on the same page here “moreso than any other island,” particularly given what the island has been through in recent months.
“Our community has had to come together to really focus on, ‘OK, what is our brand moving forward and what is the product that we’re selling,’” he said. “Relying on a favorable volcanic activity all these years, we now have to start looking at what’s our next greatest opportunities.”