Americans have flocked to leisure destinations since the pandemic began, and you’d think that would be great news for Hawaiian Airlines. It’s not. In fact, the pandemic has been worse for Hawaiian than just about anyone else. That reality is finally changing as things start to get back to normal. Nobody could be happier than Hawaiian about that.
Though the pandemic was a booming success (as strange as it to say) for places like Florida, Hawai’i was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Unlike in Florida where there were no restrictions at all, the islands were particularly concerned about the impact of COVID on the locals, so the state government put into place strict controls on people who came to visit.
For the first six months it was virtually impossible to visit since there was a mandatory 14-day quarantine in place. After that, travelers who tested negative were able to bypass the quarantine, but there was a cumbersome system involved, as I learned when I flew in November 2020. There were even restrictions on interisland travel which kept travel suppressed for quite some time.
In 2021, restrictions loosened. Eventually if you were vaccinated you could get an exemption. By summer 2021, the interisland restrictions went away, and then finally in March 2022, all restrictions ended.
You can see much of this in this chart showing the seats by airline over time.
Seats from Mainland US to Hawai’i By Airline
What may seem strange about this, however, is that seats peaked in the summer of 2021 and have been declining ever since. That’s because once there was a way around the quarantine, people flocked back to Hawai’i. And with demand so low internationally due to restrictions, US carriers started dumping widebodies into the Hawai’i market because they had nowhere else to put them. Take a look…
Mainland US Airline Widebody Departures to Hawai’i
This excludes Hawaiian Airlines flights, so you can see what mainland carriers did with their airplanes. Just look at summer of 2021. There were double the number of widebody flights that operated in summer of 2019. This absolutely flooded Hawai’i with tourists to the point where some local politicians asked people to stop coming.
By summer of 2022 this moderated greatly as Europe began to reopen, but there was another surge in the winter of 2022/2023 since typical winter peak routes were largely on ice.
Now things seem to be coming back to normal. Summer of 2021 had 22 percent more seats than summer of 2019. Summer of 2023 is up only 7 percent versus summer 2019. Winter is moderating as well. January of 2022 was more than 12 percent above January 2020, but January 2024 as scheduled is up less than 9 percent. That schedule isn’t final and will likely come down further.
At the same time, another big source of trouble for Hawaiian is finally easing. In 2019, 55 percent of all international seats arriving in Hawai’i came from Japan. Canada was in second place with just over 13 percent which confirms just how important Japan is. Put another way, Japan was responsible for 15 percent of all non-interisland seats, including flights from the rest of the US.
Japan has been largely closed due to COVID for a very long time, and the last restrictions on Japanese travelers didn’t go away until earlier this year. Despite what Delta may be saying, Japan-origin travel has come back big, and very quickly.
Japan Origin Seats to Hawai’i
Now, airlines can’t seem to add Japan flying fast enough. Just this past week, Japan Airlines’s low cost carrier ZipAir added 10 more flights from Tokyo to Honolulu before the end of August. Demand is rushing back as Japanese travelers finally feel free to return to one of their favorite spots on Earth.
This wasn’t enough for Hawaiian to turn a profit in Q2, but the numbers are looking up. As the market continues to return toward an equilibrium, Hawaiian will finally have a shot at success once again.