After a challenging 2020, it’s been uplifting for us at Hawaiian Airlines to start seeing tangible signs pointing to a recovery in travel – and none more exciting for us than this week’s launch of two of our four newest routes, Long Beach-Maui and Orlando-Honolulu. Our Ontario-Honolulu service begins Tuesday, followed by Austin-Honolulu service in April.
While our airline and Hawai‘i as a destination are well-positioned for a recovery, confidence, determination, and a good game plan will be essential.
“Let’s focus on that recovery by remembering who we are and why our guests choose us and share that warmth and aloha after a brutal year of quarantines and empty airports,” Hawaiian Airlines President and CEO Peter Ingram wrote employees in a recent company memo. “Our hoʻokipa [hospitality] is a refuge for weary travelers, and it also reconnects us with each other as our business returns.”
To learn more about what the near-term future holds for our airline, including demand trends, the state of our fleet and network, we sat down to talk story with Brent Overbeek, senior vice president of network planning and revenue management at Hawaiian Airlines.
Can you explain the reasoning behind launching our latest routes at this time? How are they performing so far?
We know demand in some of our deeper, established markets – like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Seattle – will take some time to return to pre-pandemic levels. In this downtime, we saw an opportunity to expand our footprint on the U.S. West Coast and tap into new markets that have demonstrated a strong interest in travel to Hawaiʻi.
Before the launch of our new Orlando-Honolulu service, Orlando was the second-largest travel market to the Hawaiian Islands that lacked nonstop flights, and the second most popular destination for kamaʻāina (Hawaiʻi residents), after Las Vegas. Austin, where the population is growing in correlation with its thriving tech sector, is similar in that it is the third-largest travel market to the Hawaiian Islands without the convenience of a nonstop flight. We launch our inaugural flight to Honolulu from Orlando this Saturday and Austin-Honolulu in April – both routes becoming the first and the only nonstop option to Honolulu. Bookings are so promising that we’ve decided to expand our service to meet the growing demand during the upcoming summer travel season.
In terms of expanding our U.S. West Coast pool, we have had our eyes on launching service between Long Beach and Kahului, Maui, for some time now. We have had an airport slot for a while and initially planned to launch our service before the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our guests flying our Long Beach-Honolulu flights also connect to Maui, so it made sense to us from a business and network perspective to offer them direct access to the Valley Isle.
One thing that some folks may remember is that we are not new to Ontario. We briefly served the market in 2002 but stopped in 2004 because our wide-body aircraft size was not suitable for the demand of a mid-sized market back then. Today, our fuel-efficient Airbus A321neo, a mid-sized plane, is the perfect match for the route.
We are pleased with these markets' early performance, and we anticipate demand to continue to strengthen into the summer. We’ve also decided to expand our service to ONT to meet summer travel demand.
How does demand look as we approach peak periods? How does Hawaiian leverage busier travel periods to build momentum and confidence?
The improvement in demand is encouraging, but we have a long way to go. We have seen an upward trend in booking since mid-January as COVID-19 cases decline, confidence in the vaccines grow, and people feel comfortable traveling again. Right now, our focus is on ramping up our North America schedule. In February, we flew about 60 percent of our pre-pandemic levels, and as we continue to add back service, I think we will likely be in the 90-95-percent range in May. Travel within the state of Hawai‘i is also picking up as our U.S. mainland guests connect to the other Neighbor Islands.
A full recovery of our Neighbor Island network will hinge on a relaxation of testing and quarantine requirements. Given our collective progress as a community to keep infections low in Hawaiʻi, we’re confident that could happen soon.
International is a whole other ballpark as we’re working with each government’s varying travel restrictions. While we have testing partnerships in Japan and Korea, travel restrictions there and in Australia, New Zealand, American Samoa and Tahiti are forcing a much slower recovery on our business's international side.
What does recovery look like to you?
As we worked our way through the pandemic, we complemented our research into booking data and trends with web search data and other metrics of interest in travel. We are now at a point where interest is turning into realized demand, so our traditional metrics are proving to become useful again.
How do services like our pre-travel testing network, pre-clear options, and other programs meant to streamline the travel experience help drive our recovery?
People are ready to travel for leisure, and Hawaiʻi is on their minds. Before COVID-19, making travel effortless was a critical focus area for us, seen in recent enhancements to our booking tools, mobile app and airport self-services. Today, our pre-travel testing partnerships and pre-clear options are an extension of our commitment to streamline our guests’ travel experience by helping them navigate and meet requirements to visit and enjoy Hawai‘i safely.
Talk a bit about our fleet. How have we adapted our fleet to a “new normal” of flying? What plans are there for our fleet looking ahead?
We’ve certainly been agile in using the fleet in various ways over the past year, including introducing the Airbus A321neo into some Neighbor island flying and using the Airbus A330 for cargo-only operations, which expanded our existing charter footprint. As the travel industry, consumer confidence and the economy recover, I think we’ll transition back to how we used our fleet before the pandemic.
We’ll receive the first of our ten Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in 2022, though we don’t anticipate bringing it into service until 2023.
Featured image credit: Long Beach Airport