HONOLULU and DALLAS (HawaiiNewsNow) - Southwest Airlines has contracted for 20 jets that will be equipped to fly to Hawaii, though the first delivery is more than a year away.
The Dallas-based discount carrier, placing a firm order for 20 Boeing 737-800s, has specified it wants the jets equipped for long flights over water, a move that industry watchers see as a sign Southwest is at last ready to fly to the islands.
"We are looking to the future," CEO Gary Kelly said this week in a speech to the Wings Club in New York. "The 800 sets the stage to bring more destinations into the realm of possibilities."
The move is a new direction for an airline that currently has neither the equipment nor the authority to fly to Hawaii. The first of the jets is scheduled to be delivered in March 2012.
"The current plan is to deliver these 20, 737-800 aircraft in full Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards configuration," Southwest said in a news release.
ETOPS authority is the Federal Aviation Administration's special rules and special certification for long flights over water with twin-engine jets, requiring more stringent schedules for inspection, more frequent changeout of aircraft parts, and extra training for pilots. Qualifying requires, among other things, extensive flying of a jet over open ocean with one of the engines turned off.
"All signs point to Southwest using the 800 to fly to Hawaii," said Carl Unger of SmarterTravel.com.
The Dallas News reported Thursday that Southwest had posted a job for an ETOPS program manager. "You can't fly to Hawaii if you don't have ETOPS certification, and you can't have ETOPS certification without the right people," said reporter Terry Maxon.
Kelly, in his New York speech, mentioned several other possible destinations, but none other than Hawaii that justified the costly ETOPS certification.
Southwest, while smaller than the big three airlines in revenue passenger miles, actually carries more individual passengers than any other U.S. carrier. Its discount pricing model has been based in large measure on low training and maintenance costs by flying only one kind of aircraft.
Without its own service to Hawaii, Southwest sold code share tickets on ATA Airlines until ATA's demise in 2008, three days after the shutdown of Aloha Airlines.
Southwest could provide stiff competition to Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines, and aviation Web boards this week were rife with speculation that Alaska might make an offer for Hawaiian, but neither airline confirmed even that discussions were held, and both have successfully grown organically in the past year, that is, by adding service rather than through mergers and acquisitions.