It was quiet and drizzly Thursday morning as Southwest Airlines president Tom Nealon made his way to the carrier’s counter at Hilo International Airport, warmly greeting the customer service agents behind the desk.
As the carrier expands service to and from Hawaii, company leaders spent the week in the islands and visited Hilo on Thursday.
Nealon said the primary purpose of the trip was to spend time with employees and share his appreciation.
“It’s our 50th anniversary,” he said. “… They’re as much a part of Southwest as a customer service agent in Albany or anyplace else in the network. So they’re Southwest employees and they’re more removed than the others but I really want to get out here and see them and thank them.”
Southwest also was celebrating the expansion of its network.
The airline last month announced it will launch new nonstop flights from Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix to a number of Hawaiian destinations — including Kailua-Kona.
Flights between Las Vegas and Honolulu launched June 6.
“What we just executed with the new schedule is what we intended all along,” Nealon said. “So it’s not as though we had just amped up our service to Hawaii. This is not a new strategy. This is what we intended to do prior to COVID. This is just following through on the execution of the strategy we had.”
The airline has added service at 18 airports since early 2020.
“The 18 cities that we are either serving or announced service to, these are cities that we’ve always wanted to serve, but honestly we haven’t had the aircraft to serve them,” Nealon said. “Then as the pandemic kicked in and we started to ground aircraft, we just didn’t need as many airplanes flying, it was a perfect time for us to begin service to these new markets, because we did have the aircraft. Now we had a lot of aircraft on the ground, we had pilots, we had flight crews, ground crews. So we wanted to make sure that now’s a good time for us to get in these markets that we haven’t been able to get into.”
When asked whether there were plans to expand Southwest’s Hilo services beyond four-times daily flights to and from Honolulu, Nealon said, “I think right now, we need to let everything kind of settle in. I think we need to see how everything’s performing.”
Many people, both in Hawaii and out, are excited about direct flights to both Las Vegas and Phoenix, he said, but summer demand is bifurcated.
“Leisure demand … is really very strong,” he said. “In fact, both demand and fares are back to 2019 kind of levels.”
In contrast, however, Nealon said business travel continues to be “very soft” but improving.
Southwest business travel was down 88% in January, he said, but now is down in the mid-70% range.
“But, anecdotally, I can tell you when I’m traveling, I’m seeing more business travelers,” Nealon said. “I’m seeing more briefcases, I’m seeing more sport coats and ties … and you’re also starting to see it show up in terms of what we’re hearing from the corporate travel managers in terms of their willingness to begin to have their employees travel again.”
Southwest on Thursday also announced from Hilo that it will offer 50 roundtrip tickets as part of the state’s HI Got Vaccinated incentive program.
“So next week we celebrate our 50th year as a carrier, and then 50th state, we’re going to give 50 roundtrips into that effort to encourage vaccination,” Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said. “… Realizing it’s a sustained effort we wanted to get a second round of (incentives) in there.”
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.