See below for April 10 update
Everyone at Southwest Airlines was saddened by the sudden termination of service by our codeshare partner, ATA Airlines. Setting aside the business relationship for just a second, we appreciate the hard work of our colleagues at ATA, and wish them nothing but the best in the future.
However, I thought I should post a quick blog about a question that's come up MANY times since ATA ceased operating–why didn't Southwest buy (or take over) ATA's Hawaii routes? As much as all of us at Southwest would love to have done it, there are a few absolute brick walls that prevent us from just jumping in on short notice to fill the void left by ATA.
The simple answer: we can't.
First, there is no such thing as "buying" a domestic US route these days. Deregulation of the industry the late 1970's meant that any airline could fly between any two points in the US if they wanted to. Some international route authories are still tightly controlled, but mainland–Hawaii service is considered domestic. So there was nothing to buy.
Okay--on to the brick walls. Brick wall #1–Southwest's aircraft are not ready to quickly start flying to Hawaii. Twin-engine aircraft require extra equipment, and their flight and ground crews extra training, in order to fly longhaul flights over vast stretches of open water. ATA's Boeing 737's and employees (as were those of Aloha Airlines) were already fully certified in that process. Southwest's haven't been, because we have never needed it.
Brick wall #2–resource availability. Southwest's low costs are predicated on efficiency and part of that efficiency means we don't have spare, unused aircraft and Crews simply sitting around waiting for something to do. If we were to undertake a large-scale new operation on very short notice (and simply duplicating ATA's Hawaii operations would require nearly a dozen aircraft and the opening of five new cities), we would have to cancel existing service to free up aircraft, reaccommodate Customers booked on those flights, and reroute possibly hundreds of Crew pairings–all at a huge cost to both Customers and Crews. In these days of $100 a barrel oil, that is a cost Southwest just couldn't justify.
Going further...in response to these brick walls, many have asked why Southwest just didn't buy ATA's aircraft (already certificated and in use for Hawaiian operations) and use those aircraft to fly ATA's former routes. Again, it's a lot easier said than done. First, the certification for longhaul overwater operations is specific to the airline, not the aircraft–so even if we had slapped a Southwest logo on ATA's aircraft, we still couldn't immediately begin boarding our first departure to Honolulu. And while ATA flew 737's (among other aircraft types) to Hawaii, they were the 737-800, a different type of 737 than Southwest's (we fly -300's, -500's, and -700's). Introducing a new aircraft type into an airline's fleet is an expensive, time-consuming, and resource-intensive activity, and our current focus and efforts are better spent on improving the efficiency and performance of our existing, mainland-based network.
Again, we are enormously disappointed at this turn of events–but I hope this answers some of your questions as to why Southwest isn't able to simply swoop in and take up the Hawaiian "slack"....and we sincerely wish all of ATA's employees the best of luck. Thanks for reading "Nuts About Southwest!"
Update as of April 10, 2008:
Today, Southwest began contacting Customers who purchased Southwest tickets operated by ATA Airlines and were scheduled to commence travel after from May 3rd to process full refunds of their tickets. While we have successfully reaccommodated the majority of our Customers traveling between now and May 3, we have also realized that the only realistic option as we go forward into peak travel season is to give full refunds on existing purchased tickets. As we examined reaccomodation options beyond May 3, it became readily apparent that, given the significant reduction in capacity between the Mainland and Hawaii after the discontinuation of both ATA and Aloha Airlines, there were simply too few seats left available to offer all of our Customers suitable rebooking options.
Why was May 3 picked as the date? Well, the simple answer is that it gave Southwest 30 days to handle Customers that were most immediately impacted--to contact them, to reaccomodate them, and to get them on their way. Looking past that date, though, it was pretty clear after a week of study that the options past May 3 were not greater--they were fewer.
I can honestly say that everyone at Southwest is heartsick at this outcome, just as we are enormously disappointed at the sudden demise of ATA. However, we *do* think it is better to refund existing, paid Southwest tickets on ATA flights, rather than to keep you waiting on options that would most probably be inferior to the great service that we had planned to provide for you.
To answer a harder question.....did we look at other options? Of course. Read the blog post above for a detailed explanation of why Southwest can't just start immediate service to Hawaii. Further, when the numbers of people booked on each, individual day were studied, there just weren't enough people on each single day to funnel them through a logical "collection" point, given their existing reservations, and arrange charter service even in the short term. And to make that option even more difficult, the list of available charter options has been significantly reduced by the current industry crisis. So, that just wasn't an option. Nor was it an acceptable option to keep you on pins and needles.....thus this decision.
Again, those Customers who purchased Southwest tickets operated by ATA Airlines and were scheduled to begin their trips between May 4 and August 22,2008, will receive a full refund delivered to your original form of payment and a Southwest LUV voucher as a gesture of goodwill for this inconvenience....but I thought it was important to update the blog with the "breaking" news. We had hoped to build on our relationship with ATA, but they decided they couldn't continue in the current business climate. We have done what we hope is best for everyone.
All of us here at the Southwest Airlines are very saddened by this. We hope you will understand that ATA's discontinuation of scheduled service was just flat beyond our control...and that we are doing what we can to provide the best Service to our wonderful Customers.