Sweet Relief Comes for Hawaiian


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

Data via Cirium

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

Data via Cirium

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

Data via Cirium

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.

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14 comments on “Sweet Relief Comes for Hawaiian

  1. How much has Southwest’s entry into the inter-island market affected Hawaiian’s profits? I flew inter-island on Hawaiian about a month ago for less than $100 RT. According to a few people we talked to, Hawaiian and Southwest are in a price war on inter-island flights and they are cheaper than they have been. Curious how much that affects profits for Hawaiian as well.

    1. Daniel – It has certainly had an impact, but the crazy low fares have gone up to moderately low fares, so the pain is less than it was. (Of course, who knows what will happen now with the fires.)

    1. My brother has actually flown then from Portland, OR to Honolulu! He had never heard of the airline before. Lol.

      1. There was a brief window in the early 2010’s when allegiant was going to fly to Honolulu from places like Monterey and Santa Maria

          1. Per Wikipedia “On November 17, 2012, Allegiant Air briefly operated Boeing 757-200 mainline jets from Santa Maria nonstop to Honolulu once a week until August 14, 2013.”

    2. I don’t know why but I checked and their current route map does not show Hawaii. So today (which was really yesterday), it turns out I learned nothing. ;-)

  2. Delta struggles with Japan because it has no feed there, and can’t seem to make a consolidated operation at HND work for it, showing that there are limits to selling tickets originating in the US, through DL hubs and on to Japan. UA and AA have the edge in Tokyo, as they have partnerships with NH and JL respectively, and those aren’t going anywhere.

    Would not surprise if Delta were to sell of slots at HND at some point because it clearly can’t optimize them.

  3. The article didn’t specifically detail Hawaii-Tokyo service but Hawaiian was only operating one of its 4 pre-covid flights and will be back to all 4 only after slot exemptions expire and they have to or will use their slots if they don’t fly them.
    HA’s fares are also lower than every other carrier by at least $125 even when though HA has HND flights – so they are clearly not operating from a position of strength.
    HA is still far less profitable than any other legacy carrier that flies between Japan and Hawaii.

    DL could clearly fill seats and operate the route now if they wanted to but they are making far more money flying to Europe.

    And DL’s statements about low demand were filed in early 2023 do correlate with the demand graph above and before restrictions ended.

    And the fact that United is pulling out of the HNL-NRT market validates that NRT will be a growing drain for AA/JL and UA/NH esp. as long as HND fares are so much lower, including by HA, and the same dynamic will play out across the US. HND is simply a preferable airport and the amount of seats that will be re-added to HND will make the economics of NRT less and less favorable.

  4. It seems to me that no one can draw any kind of accurate conclusions about service to Tokyo based on the last few years.

    1. While it is fair that a number of changes took place in the Tokyo market during the covid era and the market is still evolving, there were a number of things that were changing even before covid and the pandemic just accelerated change – as was the case in many other areas of life.

      The Japanese market is still shrinking, studies show the Japanese people generally do not like foreign visitors even though Japan is a popular tourist destination, and the Tokyo airport situation continues to evolve.

      Flights to Haneda from the US commanded higher average fares than from Narita and that is certain to impact the amount of service that remains from Hawaii to NRT unless HND demand comes roaring back to levels higher than existed before covid which is probably not likely esp. given that the Yen is weaker relative to the Dollar than it was pre-covid.

      As long as the number of US-HND flights remains capped, AA/JL and UA/NH will be forced to have a split hub. And as long as DL doesn’t get all of the US gateways it wants but has to operate some flights it might not want long-term (including possibly HNL-HND), all sides will be pushing for another round which will impact all of the Tokyo market including from Hawaii.

      And Hawaiian’s finances are the weakest of any of the players in the Hawaii-Tokyo market which could also lead to changes. The massive fires in Hawaii might make things worse at least for a while.

  5. Separate of the devastating and tragic fires affecting Maui, and the trickle down effect this will have to HA’s financials, HA has another issue on their plate – the replacement of their 717’s/MD95’s. HA has been awfully quiet on this.


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