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Make way for Southwest

Inaugural flight of Maui service touches down at Kahului Airport

Southwest Airlines’ inaugural flight from Oakland to Maui skids to a stop on the runway of the Kahului Airport on Sunday afternoon. Passengers were were greeted with leis and food during a blessing and big celebration at Gate 9. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

KAHULUI — As a room full of airline staff and family members cheered, Southwest Airlines’ inaugural flight to Maui touched down on the Kahului Airport tarmac Sunday afternoon.

The airline officially began service to Maui on Sunday with a full flight from Oakland; the first departure from Kahului to Oakland takes off shortly before 1 p.m. today.

Passengers emerged from the plane Sunday all smiles as employees and volunteers greeted them with goodie bags, lei and plates of kalua pig and lomi salmon.

“It was incredible, probably the best flight experience we’ve ever had,” said Amish Desai, a Chicago physician who came to Maui for a conference with his wife, Vicki, and 18-month-old daughter, Diya. “Everyone was just super welcoming, and it was crazy to have a live concert in the middle of the flight, which was really fun.”

Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said the plane brought 175 passengers from Oakland, including Maui singer-songwriter Lily Meola, who played a few numbers during the flight and was the first to step off the plane.

Ua Aloha Maji of Halau Manaiakalani pours water down the nose of the inaugural jet following a blessing and lei draping of the Boeing 737-800.

Capt. Kevin Vaughan, a 21-year veteran of the airline, said the flight lasted 5 1/2 hours and was “mostly smooth the whole way.”

“I have never done an inaugural flight, and to do one to Maui, it was just something that I’d never thought I would be able to experience,” Vaughan said. “And the welcoming from the local Hawaiians has just been outrageous. It’s crazy. We feel like family.”

After passengers disembarked, Kumu Kapono Kamaunu and Ua Aloha Maji of Halau Manaiakalani performed a special lolo ana ceremony traditionally done for new canoes. As the pilots and crew knelt on lauhala mats in the boarding lounge, Kamaunu and Maji shared fish, sweet potato, taro and kalua pig as a way of connecting them to the land. They finished with fresh coconut water — “the purest form of water from Kane, one of the four major gods,” Kamaunu explained.

Kamaunu and Maji also blessed the Boeing 737-800 on the tarmac, and representatives from the Lei of Aloha for World Peace draped a massive ti-leaf lei around the plane.

“It’s been in the works for quite a while, and I think people on Maui are excited to see it,” said Marvin Moniz, the Maui airports district manager, as he snapped photos of the jet on the tarmac. “It’s another option for the people of Maui getting to and from the West Coast cities and the Bay Area.”

Hawaiian Airlines taxies past its new competition, Southwest Airlines, on the tarmac on Sunday afternoon.

Southwest’s inaugural flight to Honolulu took place March 17. The airline will operate one flight per day in each direction between Kahului and Oakland until Wednesday, when there will be two flights in each direction, airline spokesman Brad Hawkins said. The airline’s ticket counter at the Kahului Airport will open today by 10 a.m.

Interisland service begins April 28, with four flights daily in each direction between Honolulu and Kahului, Hawkins added. Service to San Jose will start at the end of May, with dates for service to Sacramento, San Diego and Lihue to be announced in the future.

After the 35-day government shutdown created some delays for Southwest’s certification process, the airline was finally able to send a test flight to Kahului in February. Ticket sales launched in March, with airfares as low as $29 one way interisland and $49 one way to California — prompting Hawaiian Airlines to lower some interisland fares to $98 round trip.

One-way fares in October — the latest full month available on Southwest’s website — range from as low as $139 to about $400. When asked what customers should expect to be the most typical rates in the long term, Vice-President/Controller of Finance Leah Koontz said she couldn’t discuss specific prices. However, she said Southwest is known as “the low-fare brand” that doesn’t charge baggage or change fees.

“Generally when we enter into a new market, there is a ramp-up period of time before everything kind of stabilizes,” Koontz said. “So again, what I would suggest to people is just go to southwest.com. That’s where you’re always going to see the lowest fares that we have published.”

Southwest pilots Kevin Vaughan (from left), Garland Deprang and Robert Evers take part in a lolo ana ceremony traditionally used to bless new canoes. Kumu Kapono Kamaunu (far right) said the ceremony was meant to connect the pilots and crew to the land through the partaking of fish, sweet potato, taro, kalua pig and coconut water.

Koontz also said that service to Hawaii was not impacted by the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, which was recently involved in two fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. Southwest has 34 MAX 8 aircraft, which makes up about 5 percent of its 750-aircraft fleet.

“We’re flying the 737-800 aircraft (to Hawaii), and that was our plan all along,” Koontz said. “It hasn’t impacted us at all.”

However, Koontz said that if and when the MAX 8 is cleared to fly again, Southwest wants to incorporate it into its Hawaii flights.

“I’ll leave that to our network and our operations folks to figure out exactly where they want to deploy them,” she said. “But we certainly want to bring them in as soon as we are able to.”

Southwest has close to 35 employees at the Kahului Airport, including Ramp Supervisor Kaulana Hilo, a Molokai boy who’s been living on the Mainland for 14 years while working for Southwest. In January, Hilo moved to Maui to work with the company’s Kahului crew. As water from the blessing slid down the nose of the plane on Sunday afternoon, Hilo stepped under the falling droplets and kissed the plane.

Southwest Airlines Ramp Supervisor Kaulana Hilo kisses the bottom of the Boeing 737-800 on the tarmac Sunday afternoon. It was an emotional moment for the Molokai boy, who is finally coming home after 14 years of working for Southwest on the Mainland.

“When I was raised on Molokai, my uncle took me fishing,” Hilo said later, holding back tears. “Told me, ‘Get off the boat, go fish, no come back on the boat until you get your fish.’ . . . And I just look at it like this is my fish. I bringing my fish home with me. . . . It’s time to share with Hawaii nei what I went out fishing for.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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