Southwest Airlines Looks at Hawaii

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Southwest Airlines has cleared the last hurdle in adding larger aircraft to its fleet, a move that could put Hawaii on the carrier's route map.

The airline's pilots union ratified an agreement this week that allows Southwest to finalize talks with Boeing for the 737-800, a fuel-efficient aircraft that can carry up to 189 passengers. Most of Southwest's existing aircraft carry 137 passengers.

The first delivery is expected in early 2012.

Southwest chairman Gary Kelly told reporters last month that the new plane "makes Hawaii a feasible destination for us."

The addition of the larger planes will also make close-in international destinations, such as Mexico and the Caribbean, more likely as the carrier looks at expansion. In addition, the 737-800s will allow Southwest to carry more passengers to airports where takeoffs and landings are restricted due to congestion – such as the three New York airports and Washington National.

The new aircraft is just one of a number of changes that Southwest has under way. Topping the list is its move to acquire AirTran, currently under regulatory review. If approved, Southwest will gain a much-desired foothold in the Atlanta market, currently the domain of Delta.

Southwest is also in the process of revamping its frequent flyer program, which has been hampered by the carrier's inability to offer Hawaii and international points for reward travel.

The new program will "overcome any objections to flying Southwest," Kelly says.

A new agreement this week with Volaris, a low-cost carrier in Mexico, allows Southwest passengers from 20 U.S. cities to connect with Volaris flights at Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose, and check their bags through to Cancun, Guadalajara, Morelia, Toluca/Mexico City and Zacatecas. Southwest customers still must purchase separate tickets, however.

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