Jun. 7—The launch Sunday of serv ice between Hawaii and Las Vegas and other new markets brings Southwest Airlines nearly all-in on its Hawaii service, and so far the gamble is paying off.
The Las Vegas service, which started Sunday, has been among the most requested Hawaii routes for Southwest customers since the carrier began serving the islands on March 17, 2019. It's also a long-awaited linchpin, along with new service in Los Angeles and Phoenix, in expanding Southwest's network between Hawaii and the mainland.
Southwest President Tom Nealon told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser during an interview Sunday at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport that the new service "is the culmination of the vision that we had all along and that we had to pause because of COVID."
Nealon said the new Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix service will allow Southwest to connect Hawaii to eight nonstop destinations on the mainland, with connecting service to 45 cities.
"The other thing that is so great about the Vegas route is that ... the community just loves it. So far, demand is over the top, " he said just minutes after walking past a Las Vegas showgirl who was part of the carrier's gate celebration to mark its inaugural Las Vegas service.
"We're really happy with what we are seeing out of Vegas and Phoenix as well as LAX. Initial bookings are exceeding expectations, and we feel really good about that, " Nealon said.
Customers should check flight schedules, which are routinely subject to change.
Andrew Watterson, Southwest's chief commercial officer and executive vice president, said Southwest currently offers nearly 200 flights a day to more than 60 airports from Las Vegas, which after interisland service was the second most asked request from people in Hawaii.
Christine Crews, McCarran International Airport spokeswoman, said in a video statement, "We are the 'ninth island, ' so we are really excited for both ends of the destination. There are many people from here who want to travel to Hawaii and many people from Hawaii who want to come to Las Vegas."
Nealon said Southwest is finally fulfilling its network expectations for Hawaii, which will grow to about 36 mainland round trips and maintain about 38 interisland round trips. Before Sunday, Southwest was operating only 16 round trips daily between Hawaii and the mainland.
Southwest has 320 employees in the islands now, and Nealon said it hopes to add another 150 or so employees to support the increased service. Nealon said Southwest is a good employer, with a proven commitment to Hawaii.
"If you are committed to a relationship, you don't quit when things get tough. We kept flying. During the pandemic we maintained vital air service throughout the islands with a load factor of 3 %, " Nealon said. "During the pandemic we did not layoff or furlough one person, and no one took a pay cut."
He said the carrier doesn't have any other new plans to announce, but said decision makers will watch "as demand materializes, " and "if we think we could stimulate more demand, we'll certainly add more flying."
Nealon said Southwest's overall load factors and leisure fares are back to 2019 levels.
"Leisure demand has really come back much faster and stronger than we would have expected, " he said. "In Hawaii the demand is very, very strong. We are very bullish on our opportunity here and totally committed to executing it."
The Dallas-based carrier's twice-daily nonstop service to Las Vegas will expand to Kahului on June 27. Nonstop daily service between Las Vegas and Kona starts Sept. 7 and begins Sept. 8 in Lihue.
Southwest also began nonstop daily service between Honolulu and Los Angeles on Sunday, which will increase to twice daily on June 27. On Sunday, Southwest began offering service three times a day between Kahului and Los Angeles. On June 27 it will begin nonstop daily service between Los Angeles and Kona as well as Lihue.
Southwest already had been offering nonstop service between San Diego and Hawaii but increased it Sunday to twice daily.
San Diego resident Jessica Severance, who was returning Sunday to San Diego from Honolulu, said the new service is exciting for Southwest customers as it provides opportunity for more daytime trans-Pacific flights and better pricing.
"The new service is huge, especially for those of us who are traveling with family and don't want to go on super-early or super-late flights, " said Severance, who was traveling with 2-year-old Samantha and 7-year-old Alexander.
"The main reason that we choose Southwest was for the price, which includes two free bags of luggage. We need to travel with a lot of stuff, " she said. "Southwest had everything that we wanted."
Southwest also began offering once-daily nonstop service between San Diego and Kahului on Sunday, and will increase the frequency to twice daily on June 27.
On June 27, Southwest will offer a daily nonstop flight between San Diego and Kona. On June 29, Southwest will offer daily nonstop service between San Diego and Lihue.