72 Hours with Hawaiian Airlines: The Honolulu International Airport Modernization Plan

Just about every person I met with during my visit to Hawaiian brought up the Honolulu International Airport modernization plan. This is a project that has been in the works for years, but it’s clear that Hawaiian sees this as absolutely crucial to its future growth. To understand why the airport needs modernizing, we need to look at how it functions now.

[Disclosure: Hawaiian paid for my flights and hotel]

Here’s how things stand today:

Honolulu Airport Today

The main terminal is the overseas terminal. It was opened in 1962 but has had concourses bolted on since then. The Ewa Concourse was built first, followed by the Diamond Head Concourse and finally the Central Concourse in 1980. As you can see, both the Diamond Head and Ewa Concourses have a distinctive and annoying curve which means airplanes can only park on one side. That doesn’t seem very efficient, and earlier plans were going to involve changing that, but those appear to have been shelved.

The interisland terminal was built for, well, interisland flightrs. Hawaiian and Aloha were the main tenants for years, so that obviously left a lot of room for Hawaiian to grow once Aloha shut down. The Commuter Terminal has had a variety of operators come and go over the years. Today it serves Island Air and Mokulele. This seems like it works, right, so what’s the issue?

When Hawaiian started its growth spurt, it did what it could to create a combined operation. That meant locating its check in area in the Interisland Terminal where there’s both a traditional counter (below) and a new-style one with kiosks in the center and a bag belt at the back wall (reminiscent of Air New Zealand’s set up in Auckland).

Hawaiian Airlines Honolulu Ticket Counter

From there, Hawaiian customers can go through security. Interisland passengers don’t have a far walk at all, but passengers traveling on longer hauls can have quite the trek. They try to keep overseas Hawaiian departures on the Ewa Concourse (with a few actually leaving from the Interisland Terminal), but that doesn’t always work out. People have to walk outside for what can be a pretty long distance. When I flew in, for instance, I arrived at gate 33, the next to last one on the Ewa Concourse. I had to walk for more than 10 minutes (lugging my carry-on in the humid air) before getting back toward civilization. There is a bus there, but it’s really not the most pleasant experience, if it shows up when you need it.

But that’s just the issue on the landside of the terminal. On the airside of the operation, there is a huge bottleneck where airplanes can’t taxi side-by-side on their own between the Interisland Terminal and the runways. It slows things down a lot. So, here’s what’s coming:

Honolulu Airport Modernization

First, you can see that the Commuter Terminal is knocked down and relocated to the end of the Diamond Head Concourse. For the tenants of that terminal, I would assume it would be a slightly nicer experience, but it really doesn’t matter all that much. It’s just a different location.

The reason for making that move is to knock down the current Commuter Terminal and build the new Mauka Concourse. When it opens in 2017, the Mauka Concourse will have holdrooms for 6 widebodies or 11 narrowbodies. This will allow Hawaiian to shift more of its widebodies to use those gates, keeping them closer to check-in and the interisland operation. I’m sure Hawaiian will still need to use gates on the Ewa Concourse from time to time but this will reduce that demand significantly. And hopefully they can use only the closest Ewa gates if they need them.

But the Mauka Concourse alone doesn’t solve all the problems. They still can’t easily taxi back and forth to the runways from there. The big hindrance is the old joint hangar that has Hawaiian on one side and Aloha Air Cargo on the other. It’s a small hangar that can barely fit part of a 717, so demolishing it would be no great loss. For that reason, it’s toast.

The new Hawaiian hangar is being built right now, and it’s going to be much bigger, having widebody capacity. Aloha Air Cargo will get a new hangar as well. They’ll also move some employee parking around. The upshot is that this opens up a bunch more room so they can widen the taxiways. In 2017, when the Mauka Concourse opens and this whole project is done, airplanes will be able to taxi in and out simultaneously under their own power. This will give Hawaiian a consolidated home for its operation. At the same time, it will open up more gates for other carriers to use as well.

Hawaiian is expecting huge growth in connecting traffic from not only its own growing international operation but also from that of its partners. So some kind of facility improvement is sorely needed. This seems like it should do the trick, at least for the next few years. The way everyone at Hawaiian speaks about it, it sounds like it can’t be completed soon enough.

Other posts from my 72 hours with Hawaiian Airlines:
72 Hours with Hawaiian: Flying to Honolulu in Extra Comfort
72 Hours with Hawaiian: A Unique Headquarters Setup, Flying Hawaiian’s Very First Airplane
72 Hours With Hawaiian: Across the Aisle From President and CEO Mark Dunkerley
72 Hours with Hawaiian: Meeting with Execs, Flying ‘Ohana by Hawaiian
72 Hours With Hawaiian Airlines: Talking to Flight Ops, the Ride Home in First Class

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