No Financial Turbulence

Hawaiian Airlines remains a thriving player in island tourism

By: By Marty Wentzel

First-class cabin on Hawaiian Airlines // (c) Hawaiian Airlines
First-class cabin on Hawaiian Airlines

While some airlines are going under and others are merging in order to stay aloft, Hawaiian Airlines seems to be flying in a whole different stratosphere. Although it’s not immune to rising fuel costs and the struggling economy, the Honolulu-based carrier appears to be making all the right moves, filling seats in the present and staying strong for the future.

Keoni Wagner, Hawaiian’s vice president of public affairs, attributes the airline’s good health to a well-defined and simple business model flying to and through the islands.

"We’ve worked hard at developing a reputation for reliability, quality and value, which speaks to strong leadership, a sharp management team and an employee group that really cares," said Wagner. "And, we have a strong brand. Our island heritage ultimately defines our product and differentiates us from every other carrier."

But the current economic turbulence has jostled even the strongest of carriers of late. This year, Hawaiian’s normally robust summer passenger counts were down about six points. Anticipating a flat fall, the airline has been offering low fares and packages in order to fill its seats and generate revenue.

"Even during a down economy, people aspire to visit Hawaii," said Wagner. "There will always be demand for people to travel to the islands. With these specials, we’re trying to convince them that they can make it happen."

One such Hawaiian Air promotion — a series of fall vacation packages — is currently available for booking through Oct. 31, for travel through Dec. 12. Clients can purchase a combination of roundtrip air and three nights in an Oahu hotel at rates from $544 per person from Portland, Ore., with accommodations at the three-star Aqua Palms hotel in Waikiki. Six other gateway cities and a variety of other resorts are also available.

At the same time, Hawaiian has been running short-term tactical deals on its Web site, with roundtrip airfares dipping below $300. While the weekly offers come with short booking windows, they apply to travel through mid-February 2009.

"My advice to travel agents and their clients: Keep watching our Web site on a weekly basis for the best fares," said Wagner.

On the local scene, Hawaiian is expanding its interisland fleet by adding four Boeing 717-200 aircraft. The first plane entered service in early October, with the remaining three joining the fleet, one per month, starting in November. The more efficient 717s will replace the wide-body planes that Hawaiian has been using for interisland operations. Simultaneously, it’s improving its schedule, adding flights at high-demand times.

"Over the past six months, we’ve been in an expansion mode because our biggest competitor [Aloha Airlines] left the market," said Wagner. "When Aloha first shut down in April, we put in as many interisland seats as possible, moving planes around and making sure that no one was left behind. We kept the market moving, adding spare planes and extending the operating day."

Wagner sees 2009 as a year of stabilization for Hawaiian Air. In the long run, however, it seems that the sky is the limit for the carrier. Thanks to a purchase agreement with Airbus, Hawaiian is upgrading its long-range fleet starting in 2012, at which point it will introduce one new route per year, he said. Hawaiian already launched service between Honolulu and Manila in April.

"We’re interested in expanding into Asia, with Shanghai high on the list" said Wagner. "We’ll likely add more service to North America. By 2017, we’ll have the capacity to fly nonstop between Honolulu and Europe in extra-wide-body planes."