A Decade of Change In Hawai’i


I realize that Hawai’i is so far west that it’s off the radar of much of the country, but it’s always top of mind for me. Having vacationed there often as a kid (and going back for the first time in seven years this September), I’ve always paid close attention. Over the last decade, it’s been an incredibly exciting place to watch.

Think about what the market was like ten years ago. Hawaiian and Aloha were the two big interisland carriers, as had been the case for decades. Aloha had just started flying to the mainland. Hawaiian had recently replaced its DC-10s with 767s but still mainly flew the big airplanes to large cities on the West Coast. The big legacy carriers had their usual service to Hawai’i, much of it focused on Honolulu. Low cost ATA also had a fair bit of service in the market as did the odd charter carrier.

Logos of Hawai'i

Since that time, the market has been turned on its head. In the interisland market, Aloha went under and Mesa used shady tactics to take its place with go! in the interisland market. Others tried to grow and then retrenched (Island Air). Still others (Mokulele and go!) partnered, and then broke up.

To the mainland, things changed even more quickly. With Aloha and then ATA gone, there was a big opening in Hawai’i. Alaska Airlines filled it and now has a ton of service in the market. More and more service shifted to the outer islands to the point that it’s fairly rare to find a widebody to Hawai’i at all, unless you’re on Hawaiian.

Hawaiian has seen the most remarkable change of all. In the interisland market, it is now the undisputed king. go! is just a minor annoyance. Now, it is looking to cement its place even further by expanding back into a market it served years ago with Dash-7 turboprops. Buried in a recent release about interisland fare changes, Hawaiian noted that it has “signed a Letter of Intent to acquire turbo-prop aircraft with the aim of establishing a subsidiary carrier to serve routes not currently in Hawaiian’s neighbor island system.”

The market to places like Lanai and Molokai along with smaller cities on the bigger islands has been dominated by the likes of Island Air (with whom Hawaiian currently codeshares) and smaller players like Mokulele and Pacific Wings. Now Hawaiian wants a piece of that too.

But the most remarkable change has been in the long haul route network. Hawaiian’s operation to big west coast cities remains, but it has been surrounded by other opportunities. Hawaiian started pushing into other cities like San Jose and Sacramento. But it also looked elsewhere in the world.

With its recent announcement of service to Auckland, Hawaiian has continued to grow the Pacific Rim. Other than Sydney next door, there’s now also Manila, Tokyo, Sapporo, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Seoul. Many of those North Asian cities are really made possible by the introduction of the A330, an airplane with longer range to help Hawaiian grow into these lucrative new markets.

But it’s not just about growth around the Pacific Rim. Hawaiian is also experimenting beyond the Western US and has pushed into New York. That might sound like a gamble since New Yorkers more frequently fly down to the much-closer Florida and Caribbean markets, but Hawaiian thinks it can make a go of it. It’s being smart about it and flies into JetBlue’s Terminal 5. It has also put together a partnership with JetBlue to feed its flight from around the Northeast.

The result is a dramatically different airline than what we saw just a decade ago. Will this all work? Maybe not. But it doesn’t have to as long as some of it does. There’s nothing wrong with trial and error, and this is an airline that seems to be willing to take some chances. I’d love to get into greater detail with them about their strategy, but I’m afraid I have never received a response from the PR folks over there so I stopped trying. But it’s still a lot of fun to watch from afar.

Hawaiian isn’t the only story in Hawai’i these days. Island Air has just announced big changes itself. I’m hoping to speak to the CEO over there sometime soon to get more detail about plans to compete in this fast-moving market. And the market isn’t done shifting.

Southwest has said it will fly to Hawai’i one of these days. Rumors have swirled about Virgin America working on it as well. And then of course, there’s Allegiant, which is finally starting up from small cities to Honolulu. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to look like in another decade.

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31 comments on “A Decade of Change In Hawai’i

  1. I would be nice to see the fares to Hawai’i start to fall back some with some increased competition. I’d also love to fly Hawaiian on a flight from the mainland, but the logistics of that from DEN just make it easier to stay on a carrier that directly serves DEN.

    On a slightly related note, is there any further evidence that the introduction of the A330 having a positive impact on Hawaiians dismal on-time performance in the non-interisland routes?

    1. Jason – Well, mixed results. LAX, for example, which is an A330 station, ran 67.1 percent on time in May. SFO was better at 77.4. Of course, compared to Phoenix at 58.1 percent or San Diego at 61.3 percent, then that is big improvement.

  2. Living in California, Hawaii was always an exotic location where people boarded wide body airplanes to travel to. It all seems so magical. Now it’s the same 737 you can fly to Reno on and the magic of getting there is gone.

    I never cared for Hawaiian, so was sadden to see Aloha go away.

  3. I think HA might be able to build a mini-DXB at HNL if they put their mind (and scheduling) to it. Island Air should be able to pick up a few code-share partners and become the new Aloha, at least inter-island. go! can GO as far as I’m concerned, tho I hate to see people lose their jobs because of it.

    1. ChuckMO – There isn’t anywhere near enough traffic to compare it to Dubai – it’s mostly leisure travel and it’s mostly nonstop to Hawai’i. There is probably some limited opportunity for Honolulu as a connecting hub, but I don’t think it’s huge.

    1. The short version is that Mesa expressed interest as a possible investor during the Chapter 11 bankruptcies of both Hawaiian and Aloha, gaining access to confidential business information, then turned around and started their own competing carrier. Both Hawaiian and Aloha sued, and Mesa lost the Hawaiian case. The Aloha case was apparently settled with one of Aloha’s majority stockholders in a deal which would have seen go! renamed to “Aloha Airlines”, but was later blocked.

      Wikipedia has a good summary, with links to various news articles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go!_(airline)#Lawsuits_over_formation

    1. Laura – Yep. Not suggesting that the widebodies are gone. I’m just saying that it’s pretty rare compared to what it used to be.

  4. Ugh, I’ve read your column for years, but may have to stop reading after that “Sydney is next door to Auckland” remark. Are you aware that the distance between Sydney and Auckland is the same as from Long Beach, CA to Deadwood, SD? World’s a big place buddy, you should know that.

    1. Lighten up! Sydney and Auckland are not houses, so I think it’s fair to read Brett’s description of them a being “next door” to each other as a metaphor. And I’m pretty sure there aren’t any other big cities in between them in the middle of the Tasman Sea.

    2. John L – You sound like an oversensitive kiwi to me. They absolutely are right next door when you’re looking on a Pacific scale . . . just as I would suggest that LA and Seattle are right next door as are all of the Japan/Korea destinations.

  5. Are there really few to no wide body flights to Hawaii?!? Was this done to increase frequency and not add seats? Being an almost 100% leisure detination one would think that you don’t need 5+ daily non-stops. Just fly one R/T on a 777 and you’re good, right?

    I’ve flown a 757 to Europe once and said never again. I’m in no rush to fly on a cramped narrow body all the way to “the islands.” Guess I’ll stick with those short flights to the caribbean.

    1. California to Hawaii is around 2500 miles, give or take a bit (SFO is a bit closer than LAX). So it’s about the same length as a transcon. A couple of examples:

      IAD-SFO: 2419 mi
      SFO-HNL: 2399 mi

      BOS-LAX: 2611 mi
      LAX-HNL: 2556 mi

      East coast to Europe is quite a bit longer, so it would definitely be worse:

      EWR-MAN: 3354 mi

      In short, if you have no problem flying a 757 transcon (which is big now with many of them on 737NG and A320), then you shouldn’t have an issue with flying a 757 to Hawaii either.

      The demand from LAX and SFO has always been high. Back when most of the airlines ran wide bodies, just from LAX you could get daily flights (multiple daily flights in some cases) from American (DC-10), Hawaiian (L-1011, DC-10), Delta (L-1011), United (DC-10, 747), Continental (DC-10), Northwest (DC-10), and ATA (L-1011). Plus various short-lived carriers like Air America (L-1011), The Hawaii Express (747, DC-10), Leisure Air (DC-10), Air Hawaii (DC-10), and Rich International (L-1011). A lot of airlines feed their Hawaii traffic through LAX and SFO, and that helps fill flights too.

      Different times are useful, too. 8am departures from California are great for maximizing vacation time and making inter-island connections, but don’t have much time for inbound connecting traffic to make those flights. Evening departures have the opposite problem; they’re easy to get too, but too late for many inter-island connections.

      Give me a few minutes to put together a survey of who is flying what to Hawaii.

      1. Hilo (Big Island) to:
        – Los Angeles: United 738
        – San Francisco: United 738

        Honolulu (Oahu) to:
        – Anchorage: Alaska 738
        – Atlanta: Delta 333
        – Bellingham: Alaska 738
        – Chicago: American 763, United 772
        – Dallas: American 763
        – Denver: United 763
        – Fresno: Allegiant 752
        – Houston: United 764
        – Las Vegas: Allegiant 752, Hawaiian 332/763
        – Los Angeles: American 752, Delta 752/753/763, Hawaiian 332/763, United 738/752/753
        – New York/JFK: Hawaiian 332
        – Newark: United 764
        – Oakland: Alaska 738, Hawaiian 763
        – Phoenix: Hawaiian 763, US Airways 752
        – Portland: Alaska 738, Hawaiian 763
        – Sacramento: Hawaiian 763
        – Salt Lake City: Delta 763
        – San Diego: Alaska 738, Hawaiian 332
        – San Francisco: Delta 753, Hawaiian 332, United 738/752/764/772
        – San Jose: Alaska 738, Hawaiian 763
        – Seattle: Alaska 738, Delta 753, Hawaiian 763
        – Washington/IAD: United 764

        Kahului (Maui) to:
        – Dallas: American 763
        – Denver: United 752/763
        – Las Vegas: Hawaiian 763
        – Los Angeles: American 763, Delta 752, Hawaiian 763, United 752/753
        – Oakland: Alaska 738, Hawaiian 763
        – Phoenix: US Airways 752
        – Portland: Alaska 738
        – Sacramento: Alaska 738
        – San Diego: Alaska 738
        – San Francisco: United 752/753/763
        – San Jose: Alaska 738, Hawaiian 763
        – Seattle: Alaska 738, Hawaiian 763

        Kona (Big Island) to:
        – Chicago: United 772
        – Denver: United 763
        – Los Angeles: American 752, Delta 752, United 752/753
        – Oakland: Alaska 738
        – Phoenix: US Airways 752
        – San Francisco: United 752/763
        – San Jose: Alaska 738
        – Seattle: Alaska 738

        Lihue (Kauai) to:
        – Denver: United 763
        – Los Angeles: American 752, Delta 752, United 752
        – Oakland: Alaska 738
        – Phoenix: US Airways 752
        – San Francisco: United 763
        – San Jose: Alaska 738
        – Seattle: Alaska 738

        So, what am I seeing from all this? More service from secondary west coast cities and east coast hubs, and more service from the west coast to the outer islands. Both of which will reduce demand on the west coast hubs to Honolulu route. But there’s still plenty of capacity on key west coast hub to HNL markets.

        The other market impacted by all this is the inter-island market. With more flights directly serving the outer islands, there was excess capacity in the market with both Hawaiian and Aloha running full schedules. Attempts by go! and Mokulele to become a viable “third carrier” alternative didn’t help matters either, even though they were using smaller aircraft (CRJ-200 and Embraer 170, respectively). When Aloha failed, Hawaiian was able to soak up the extra demand they saw from Aloha’s customers without having to double the fleet by smarter scheduling and adding only a few more 717s. The result has been full flights in the inter-island market.

        1. David, I greatly enjoyed reading your analysis of this. It is nice to see the east coast getting more nonstop service to reduce the ugly double and triple connects often required to get to Hawaii but these flights are often at a significant cost premium, especially in the nonstop markets (i.e., when not originating from a small or mid size city and connecting through IAD, ATL or EWR).

          I would be remiss if I didn’t include a little love note to DL’s former L1011 service from LAX and SFO to HNL and OGG. There were always easy upgrades via the 36 seat first class section! Not so easy nowadays…

          1. The west coast secondary cities see the same thing. Taking a nonstop flight on Hawaiian or Alaska from SMF or SAN to HNL is often more expensive than connecting via LAX or SFO on United, Delta, or American.

      2. David, I would qualify the statement “same length as transcon”–there are some of differences between flying transcon and flying Hawaii that do not necesarily allow taking an aircraft from one route and plugging it into the other.

        1) A narrowbody airplane will need to have ~500 lbs ETOPs equipment that is not needed for transcon. Some airlines (like former Continental) opt to ETOPs-equip all their airplanes, but some don’t.
        2) There are no alternate airports en route to the islands. That means more fuel reserve is carried (prob ~30 mins worth of flying) vs transcon
        3) LIH and OGG are challenging airports for takeoff. So we won’t see performance-challenged types like 737-900ERs there, while they could be doing transcon all day long.

        1. A’s complaints about flying the 757 transatlantic seemed to stem from the passenger experience. All those factors are true, but don’t factor much into the passenger experience. From that perspective (sitting in a 3×3 metal tube for 5 hours), there’s not much difference in flying a 757 from the northeast to California than flying one from California to Hawaii.

  6. Years ago I remember changing aircraft in ORD and looking at that huge United 747 destined for Honolulu complete with Mai Tai’s and special flight attendant uniforms.
    Now if you want a “nice” aircraft you’re limited to Hawaiian’s new A330, a couple UA flights on the former CO 767-400’s, or a couple UA 777’s from ORD or SFO.
    767’s make the trip from some cities, but most have outdated interiors. And it is not like the fares have been a bargain this summer, though they are starting to fall. Virgin America would be the best thing that could happen to the Hawaii routes.

  7. While your article is accurate—the item that remains the same is that United is the largest carrier to the islands and has beefed up outer island to mainland in the last 10 years

  8. As someone on the Japan end, I would add that there has been quite a bit of expansion in our direction too. Within the last couple of years, three daily Tokyo frequencies were added (daily flights to HND on NH, JL and HA — all widebodies of course). Delta added a flight to Fukuoka and Hawaiian is in the process of setting up a flight to Sapporo (which has almost no long-haul service at the moment). It helps that the yen has been really strong for the past few years, which makes Japanese people more interested in vacationing overseas.

    That said, all of the nonstop service from Japan at present goes to HNL. JAL flew to Kona for a few years but eventually stopped that service. I think there’s some kind of perception that Oahu is for Japanese tourists and Maui is for American tourists…

    1. Joe Jones – I was at Kona airport once waiting to board an Aloha flight when the JAL 747 came in. Since Kona is an open air airport the 747 was loud pulling up and was right there in your face due the open air ground level boarding at the airport. You looked up to see it making the 747 seem larger when viewing from an upper level lounge area. They used two large mobile stairs for unloading/loading.

      Shame they don’t fly there anymore for others to see that. You don’t have many small ground level open airports anymore with a 747 looming over you. :-)

    2. I am not sure it’s possible to fly a widebody from Maui to Japan with a decent load. United tried 777s OGG-ORD on occasion but had to hold so many seats that when they do run the 777 to Maui from Chicago (which seems more and more rare these days), they do the triangle ORD-OGG-KOA-ORD. Having taken this a couple of times I absolutely hated the KOA layovers as you are confined in a small area of the airport and the coolness of open air does not make up for it. I would assume that the logistics of international flying would make the “triangle” routing even more complex internationally.

      In any event, Hawaiian will codeshare with anyone from HNL!

  9. With service from ANC to OGG, HNL and KOA, us captive audiance Alaskans really appreciate the 737-800 service and a way to use our milage plan miles to get to the sun fast in winter. Funny how not many Hawaiian’s come to visit us…..

  10. Southwest flying can only be from California and Oregon and Washington. Too much competition, plus…can SW get the load factors to make it a success? USAirways is doing huge business this summer 3x to HNL 2x to OGG, 8 flights a week to LIH and KOA.

  11. I realize this is an old thread, but as someone who travels from DEN to OGG, Maui every year — and has for 15 years, I an say that IMHO there is no excuse for 757s or any other narrow airplane on any long haul route. first it was triple 7s then 767s now 757s. What’s next DC-3s?

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