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Southwest Airlines first took to the friendly skies of Hawaii on March 17, 2019, when Flight 6808 departed Oakland for Honolulu. After years of working to get FAA certification, Southwest launched daily flights from Oakland and San Jose to Honolulu and Maui.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Southwest Airlines started service to Hawaii on March 17, 2019 with a flight from Oakland to Honolulu.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll look at the background leading up to Southwest’s Hawaii launch, issues getting ETOPS certification from the FAA, inaugural flight details, reactions and effects of Southwest entering the Hawaii market, and the future of Southwest Airlines Hawaii service.

The Long Road to Hawaii: Southwest’s Plans and Delays

Southwest Announces Hawaii Plans in 2017

In October 2017, Southwest Airlines officially announced plans to start selling tickets for flights to Hawaii. This came after years of analysts and customers asking Southwest to expand to the popular leisure destination.

The airline said it would first apply for ETOPS certification, a key regulatory requirement for twin-engine planes to fly long overwater routes. Southwest hoped to begin Hawaii service in 2018.

Getting ETOPS Certification

However, the ETOPS certification process took longer than expected. ETOPS stands for “Extended Operations” and refers to twin-engine planes flying long distances away from diversion airports. Southwest needed to demonstrate to the FAA its ability to fly for extended times over the Pacific in case of an emergency.

This included installing additional backup systems on its Boeing 737-800 aircraft. It took until early 2019 before Southwest obtained ETOPS clearance for Hawaii flights.

Resolving Route Authority Issues

After getting ETOPS approval, Southwest ran into another obstacle – limited route authorities to actually fly to Hawaii. Existing regulations restricted the number of carriers that could serve Hawaii from the mainland U.S. Southwest lobbied the federal Department of Transportation to expand route access, arguing the change would benefit consumers through more competition. In early 2019, Southwest secured the route permits necessary to launch Hawaii service later that year.

The airline started selling tickets for initial routes in March 2019.

Inaugural Flight and Hawaii Debut

First Flight Details

On March 17, 2019, Southwest Airlines launched its first flight from Oakland to Honolulu, officially debuting its service to Hawaii. Flight 3808 departed Oakland International Airport at 8:38 a.m. local time with much fanfare.

This historic flight marked the culmination of years of planning, preparation and regulatory approval for Southwest to expand its route map over water to the Hawaiian islands.

The 5.5 hour inaugural flight to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport was operated using a Boeing 737-800 aircraft seating 175 passengers. According to Southwest, the plane was filled to capacity with both revenue passengers and Southwest Employees flying for free to commemorate the airline’s momentous expansion.

Upon landing in Honolulu, passengers and crew were greeted with a water cannon salute and festive lei garlands. The Captain of Flight 3808 made a special announcement thanking Employees and Customers while the aircraft taxied to the gate, emphasizing that this new service would not have been possible without their tremendous support over the years.

Opening Day Festivities

Southwest celebrated its first day of Hawaii operations with multiple inaugural flights and special events showcasing the airline’s signature heartfelt hospitality. The debut events emphasized Southwest’s commitment to serving the state of Hawaii with its value-driven, customer-friendly service.

At the gate celebration in Honolulu, Southwest Employees performed a native Hawaiian blessing prior to Flight 3808’s arrival. The airline also served traditional Hawaiian food and beverages to passengers including SPAM musubi snacks, pineapple juice, guava punch and POG juice.

Lei greeters adorned each Guest with vibrant flower garlands as they exited the plane.

That afternoon, Southwest held an inaugural blessing and ribbon-cutting ceremony at the gate in Honolulu to formally launch Hawaii service. Flight attendants performed a traditional hula dance to open the festivities.

Southwest Executives and local Hawaiian authorities later gave remarks emphasizing the economic opportunities from increased tourism and Southwest’s job creation in the state.

Similar inaugural celebrations were held in Oakland and Sacramento to mark the first Hawaii departures from California. The events showcased Southwest’s genuine excitement, appreciation and commitment in serving its new island paradise destinations. With characteristic Southwest style and spirit, the airline brought affordable fares and friendly hospitality to the Hawaiian islands.

Effects of Southwest Hawaii Entry

Increased Competition

Southwest’s entry into the Hawaii market in early 2019 shook up the landscape, increasing competition among carriers. Rather than a comfortable duopoly between Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines, there was now a feisty new player.

Southwest’s bold move put pressure on the incumbent airlines to lower fares and improve services to stay competitive.

Statistics from the Hawaii Tourism Authority show that total airline capacity to Hawaii jumped after Southwest joined the market. Seat capacity from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii increased by 15.8% in 2019 compared to the previous year.

This expanded supply reflects Southwest adding nearly 25 daily flights from California to the islands. More seats inevitably lead to greater competition on metrics like pricing, amenities, and loyalty programs.

Lower Fares

Increased competition ushered in by Southwest has been a boon for travelers looking for deals. Average airfare prices to Hawaii dropped dramatically in 2019 and have remained low compared to earlier periods.

For example, average roundtrip ticket prices from the U.S. West Coast to Maui fell from $523 in 2018 to $396 in 2019, a sizable 24% drop credited largely to Southwest’s entry.

Origin City 2018 Avg. RT Airfare 2019 Avg. RT Airfare Price Drop
Los Angeles to Honolulu $397 $283 -29%
San Francisco to Maui $523 $396 -24%

Fares have continued decreasing year-over-year since then. In 2022, average airfare between California and Hawaii remained nearly 30% below 2018 prices. Travelers on a budget have cheered Southwest bargains like $49 one-way flights from Oakland to Honolulu.

Expansion of Service

Southwest’s ambitious launch of Hawaii service opened up new nonstop routes for flyers. Pre-2019, those living outside hub cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco faced lengthy layovers en route to the Aloha State.

But Southwest has aggressively expanded point-to-point flights from cities across California and beyond.

For example, leisure travelers from Sacramento went from zero nonstop Hawaii options to having Southwest routes to Maui, Honolulu, and more. Similarly, Southwest now offers nonstop service to Hawaii from inland cities like Phoenix, San Jose, and Reno.

Island-hopping between Maui, Oahu and Kona is easier too thanks to Southwest’s interisland network.

In all, Southwest now serves Hawaii with up to 400 daily flights from 14 mainland cities. This expansion has saved travelers time and opened up convenient Hawaii access from places that historically lacked it.

The Future of Southwest in Hawaii

New Routes and Destinations

Southwest Airlines has continued to expand its routes to and within Hawaii since starting service there in 2019. As of 2023, Southwest flies to 4 Hawaiian islands from 9 mainland US cities. However, there is still room for growth, especially to the islands of Molokai and Lanai which currently have no Southwest service.

Industry experts predict that Southwest will likely announce new routes from the West Coast to Kona on the Big Island and Lihue on Kauai within the next couple of years. These additional routes would allow Southwest to better compete with other airlines already serving these destinations.

Improved Offerings for Frequent Flyers

As Southwest continues expanding its presence in Hawaii, enhancements to its Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program tailored to travelers headed for the islands are likely. We could see special redemption promotions for Hawaiian hotel stays, car rental discounts, or extras like welcome leis and tropical drinks upon arrival.

Southwest is also expected to add more Hawaiian airline partners allowing Rapid Rewards members increased flexibility in earning and redeeming points on inter-island flights. This would improve the overall value of the program for Southwest customers traveling around Hawaii.

Continued Commitment

When Southwest entered Hawaii it involved significant investments including upgrading reservation systems, expanding ground operations, and launching an extensive marketing campaign. This commitment suggests the airline is in Hawaii for the long haul.

Industry analysts project steady future growth in Southwest’s Hawaii operation. While its launch happened to coincide with the global pandemic, Southwest seems prepared to ride out that storm. Executives have stated that current bookings show leisure travel to Hawaii rebounding strongly in 2022.

That bodes well for Southwest being able to thrive serving the islands for years to come.


Nearly five years after launching Hawaii service, Southwest Airlines continues to expand its island network, now offering daily flights beyond California to popular mainland departure points like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver and Chicago.

While delays and setbacks marked the early going, Southwest’s entry into the islands has had an undeniably positive effect for Hawaii travelers and locals, with increased competition leading to lower fares, alongside Southwest’s friendly service and generous baggage policies.

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