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Southwest (Finally) Launches Hawaii Flights from the West Coast

It’s taken longer than anyone expected thanks to lots of FAA red tape and a 35-day government shutdown, but Southwest has finally started selling flights from the West Coast to Hawaii. Here are the Hawaii flight route details so far, and what it all means.

Initial Southwest Hawaii service will start on March 17 to link Oakland and Honolulu, followed by Oakland to Kahului (Maui) on April 7, and Honolulu to Kahului on April 28. May launches include San Jose to Honolulu on May 5, Honolulu to Kona on May 12, San Jose to Kahului launches on May 26. Non-direct fares will also be available via Oakland and Portland.

The Southwest Effect

Southwest’s entry into the busy California-to-Hawaii market promises ongoing fare competition for as long as anyone can see. You’ve probably already read about the line’s early $49 one-way fares, which completely sold out before most sources even managed to report it. But for Southwest Hawaii flights after the initial dust has settled, Southwest’s pricing remains aggressive: For Oakland to Honolulu in mid-June, Southwest’s lowest round-trip tickets are currently at $464—roughly matching Hawaiian at $468, and undercutting Alaska’s $508. For San Jose-Honolulu, Southwest’s lowest fare is $464, which is higher than Alaska, at $428, but less than Hawaiian at $508. Connecting fares from Portland are $100-$200 higher than its own nonstops, and also a bit higher than competing nonstops.

The big hidden factor in the fare picture is that Southwest’s fares include two checked bags, whereas the other lines charge for the first bag. So for travelers who want to check even one bag, Southwest starts with a fare advantage over any competitor.

The New Hawaii Flights Schedule

Southwest’s schedules are about what you might expect: The first flight leaves California in the morning and returns in the afternoon. So far, the second flight of the day generally operate a bit later westbound, and leaves midmorning if you’re eastbound. Even though Southwest has very strong positions in both Oakland and San Jose, it apparently isn’t scheduling with an eye to connections for the Midwest and East. And unlike most competitors, Southwest does not fly a late afternoon westbound departure with an overnight red-eye return.

The main players in the California Hawaii flights market are Hawaiian, Alaska, and United. American and Delta offer a few flights, partly to accommodate frequent flyers, but they concentrate mainly on longer-range nonstops from their hubs in the Midwest and East. With this many competitors, you can expect ongoing fare competition: Although you probably won’t see those $49 fares again, you can look for some really great promotions, especially off-season.

Southwest intends to add flights to Hawaii from Sacramento and San Diego later this year, along with flights from various California points to Hilo and Lihui (Kauai). Orange County would seem to be a no-brainer, but the runway is probably too short for it. Southwest apparently intends to concentrate on secondary airports and avoid direct competition at Los Angeles and San Francisco. I wouldn’t be surprised to see flights from Burbank and Portland later on, although further growth will depend on the results from the initial routes.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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