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Las Vegas-Hawaii flights a possibility, Southwest CEO says

Updated February 13, 2019 - 4:43 pm

With Southwest Airlines set to embark on a new journey over the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, nonstop flights from Las Vegas to the island chain may not be far behind.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly called launching the Hawaii flights from four California cities is the carrier’s top priority this year. Southwest conducted a successful test flight from Oakland, California, last week, bringing that reality one step closer.

“We’re going to go very focused into Hawaii. We want to ramp up and be relevant rather quickly,” Kelly said Tuesday, after he addressed about 4,000 Southwest employees at the Las Vegas Convention Center as part of the company’s 2019 Rally series kickoff, at which the airline celebrated achievements and plans.

With Southwest introducing Boeing 737 Max 7 planes to its fleet this year, the airline is able to fly farther than before, which will open up the Las Vegas-to-Hawaii flights as soon as 2020, Kelly said.

“It’s (Las Vegas) strong, it’s stable and we’re going to continue to look for opportunities to grow,” he said. “It’s (737 Max 7 planes) something we’re thinking about for Las Vegas and maybe for Hawaii.”

Southwest is awaiting certification by the Federal Aviation Administration to allow for the commercial Hawaii flights to begin. That process could be derailed if the government shuts down, again. A 35-day partial shutdown that began in December and stretched into January already delayed the planned rollout of service.

If another shutdown is avoided and everything goes smoothly, and if Southwest receives approval in the next week, the airline can begin those flights by the end of the first quarter. If the process stretches more than a week, April will be the earliest the Hawaii flights can begin, Kelly said.

“We’re potentially days away,” he said. “If the government shuts down again, that could be problematic. We’re just that close.”

With the flights to Hawaii also originating from San Diego, San Jose and Sacramento, Kelly said, Las Vegas will still benefit from the added service, despite nonstop flights not yet originating from McCarran International Airport.

“You’ll (Las Vegas) have great access,” he said. “We’ll definitely have Hawaiians taking advantage of access to Las Vegas.”

Meanwhile, there are no immediate plans to add international flights from McCarran, Kelly said.

“In terms of connecting Las Vegas to international, not at this point,” he said. “We’re always looking for those kind of opportunities. Canada is down the road, hopefully not five years. Hopefully a couple or three years away.”

Stadium effect

Southwest has shied away from naming rights deals with major stadiums and arenas around the country, and that will likely continue with the Raiders’ stadium near the Strip, which will host games starting in 2020.

“I would never say never, but we’re a low-cost carrier, and we never felt like that was the best way to spend our marketing dollars,” Kelly said. “I think it’s very unlikely that we’d end up with something like that. We’re happy for Las Vegas that they landed an NFL franchise. It will be very exciting for the city, and we’ll want to be here to support you.”

Despite it being unlikely that Southwest’s name will don the outside of the Las Vegas stadium, Kelly sees the addition of the $1.8 billion, 65,000-seat domed facility as plus for the tourism industry.

“It’s an event, and Las Vegas is famous for events,” he said. “I think it’s just one more attractive thing about Las Vegas. There’s no question it will bring some traveling tourism. It certainly will bring a lot of attention to Vegas. I think there will be a halo effect from it. It’ll just be more top of mind to maybe not necessarily take advantage of the NFL, but just to come to Las Vegas.”

Contact Mick Akers at makers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2920. Follow @mickakers on Twitter.

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