LIHUE — Southwest Airlines has been granted a permit for lease space at Lihue Airport.
The revocable permit was recently approved by the Department of Land and Natural Resource, indicating the Dallas- based carrier’s intention of servicing Neighbor Islands.
“We’re really on the cusp of an exciting time for the largest domestic carrier in the United States and California’s largest carrier,” said Brad Hawkins, senior communication advisor for Southwest. “A gaping hole in our network has been California’s favorite closest warm-weather destination.”
The permit approval could also represent interisland service for the carrier, which is expected to launch ticket sales in Hawaii sometime this year.
“We’re looking at the interisland opportunity,” Hawkins said. “We’re looking at a way we can thoughtfully connect air markets, nonstop routes where fares could use some pressure perhaps.”
“We’re very mindful of making certain that we add service that’s relevant, that’s wanted, that fits into what communities we serve want,” Hawkins said. “So we’re all the while listening to those considerations about space at the airport, traffic, and those considerations.”
In October, just two weeks after the airline announced it would enter the Hawaii market, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said during a conference call with investors that the airline is seriously considering interisland service, although it “has been down our priority list.”
“In October of last year, we became the launch customer of the 737 MAX 8,” Hawkins said. “It has the range, the extended efficiency, the newer construction and engineering, the quieter engines, and for us it is the plane that we will ultimately fly to Hawaii.”
The 737 planes each hold a maximum of 175 passengers with all economy seating.
The U.S. domestic carrier that also flies to 11 countries across the Caribbean and Central America will continue its policy of allowing two free bags per passenger with no change fees.
“We are in the process of engaging with communities,” Hawkins said. “We’re meeting with all the Neighbor Islands this week and next week for meetings with civic and business leaders, tourism and media, really making sure we listen to the community before we offer a product so that we know what locals want.”
Last month, the airline was issued a revocable permit for airline operations at Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on Oahu.
“Our work continues on the Mainland and with the State of Hawaii to ready the landscape for our service that only would follow required governmental approvals,” Hawkins said.
The airline has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration to receive ETOPS clearance, or Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards, which is required for the airline to operate trans-Pacific flights.
“We do not want to get out ahead of those details and disappoint either our fans or our communities or the government, but we’re respectfully in this back and forth with them,” Hawkins said, “and we have committed to selling tickets this year for service from California to multiple points in the islands.”