Pacific Wings Stops and Restarts Hawai’i Flights, Craziness Ensues

It has been a really odd week for Pacific Wings. The airline has made its money flying nine-seaters around the Hawaiian islands to smaller cities, but in recent years it has begun to branch out on to the Mainland as well. In the last week, the airline abruptly shut down its Hawaiian operation and then had limited flights restart soon after, supposedly because of a physical fight with the government. Something very weird is going on here.

It is said to have all started when a state official came into the Pacific Wings hangar (that is owned by the state) in order to investigate some shenanigans around improper fuel storage. Pacific Wings didn’t want to allow them to enter, but they claim the officials shoved their representative aside. They even showed pictures of bruises on the agent, but there’s no way to prove where those came from, of course. (The bruises were also barely visible.)

Because of this supposed security breach, the CEO shut the airline down until the airline could make sure everything was in order. The state says there is no evidence of any sort of forced entry at all, but there is a history of confrontation between the state and the airline.

What’s really weird here is what happened next. Shortly after the shutdown, Pacific Wings’ CEO said they were starting up again but they wouldn’t return to their original schedule. He said that he is cutting most of the airline’s flights in Hawai’i and only keeping three routes. The most important flights here are the ones from Kalaupapa (on Molokai) to Honolulu. No other airline flies to Kalaupapa and the area is effectively cut off from the rest of the island by steep cliffs. Another route from Hana to Kahului (both on Maui) is only served by Pacific Wings but people can easily drive the route as well. The third route is Kamuela (on the Big Island) to Kahului. That’s also an airport with sparse service. On these routes, fares will now be more than doubled to $225 each way.

What the heck? This just seems so strange to blame a conflict with a state official for the shutdown of most of the airline. I think there’s something else to consider here, and that’s the airline’s mainland expansion.

Pacific Wings has made a habit of bidding for routes supported by the federal government – Essential Air Service routes. They fly under different names in each place – New Mexico Airlines, Kentucky Blue, and Georgia Skies, for example. But some of these are just getting started. For example, just last week there was an article talking about Pacific Wing’s impending entry into Owensboro, Kentucky. Hmm, interesting.

I have to wonder if they have an airplane shortage going on here. This conflict in Hawai’i gives them an excuse to shuffle some planes off to the mainland so they can start these other, government funded flights instead. That certainly sounds plausible.

Very strange to note CEO Greg Kahlstorf’s quote about lower fares in Owensboro:

I think the pricing, with some of the other carriers, was at a point where, well I wouldn’t have flown it. If it gets to the point where it’s less expensive to drive your car, buy the gas, park and you have a couple hours to do it, I think that’s what most people will do, so what we have to get people to do is think of flying as a viable alternative to driving.

He says this at the same time he more than doubles fares in Hawai’i. I suppose you can’t drive between the islands, but still . . . .

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