As Hawaiian marks its 12th anniversary of Honolulu-Incheon service, South Korea Country Director Soojin Yu reflects on the highlights of her career.
The rich history between Hawai‘i and South Korea dates back 120 years to Jan. 13, 1903, when the first Korean immigrants entered the United States by steamship on the shores of Honolulu.
Today, more than 50,000 Hawai‘i residents identify as Korean, and it's because of this deep-rooted relationship that Soojin Yu, Hawaiian’s South Korea country director, was determined to keep Hawaiian's Honolulu-Incheon service operating throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We thought it would be easy to resume passenger service since we had maintained cargo service throughout the pandemic and we were the only carrier connecting Hawai‘i and Korea at the time," Yu said. "I knew how important it was to provide essential connectivity for travelers, but it took tremendous effort and teamwork to welcome guests back onboard.”
Yu's persistence and strong relationships with government officials paid off, and Hawaiian was eventually able to add passengers to its cargo flights under a special non-scheduled flight agreement similar to charter operations. This meant submitting approval for every flight for nearly six months.
"This was the only option, and sometimes we wouldn't get approval until the day of the flight," Yu said. "It was the biggest challenge of my career with Hawaiian."
Yu’s career began more than seven years ago when – after only 10 days on the job – she was tasked with representing Hawaiian at its five-year Incheon anniversary celebration.
"I didn't know much about Hawaiian Airlines at that time because I had only just started, and I had to give a speech and talk with media - I was so nervous," she recalled. "But this event really helped me to understand what Hawaiian represented. I could see how the culture was shared through celebration and how everyone worked together like family. Like ʻohana. Our [route] anniversary is in January, and it was so cold outside," Yu continued. "But inside, I could really feel the warmth and knew then what the term 'aloha spirit' meant."
Now, Yu leads her all-female sales and marketing team – a rare occurrence in Korea's airline industry – with that same warmth and aloha.
"This is how we can be strong in Korea," Yu explains. "If we can live by Hawaiian's core values of mālama (to care for), hoʻokipa (hospitality), lōkahi (unity) and po'okela (excellence) at the office, then my team can go out and share that with our external partners too. We are far from Koapaka (Hawaiian's headquarters), so it's extremely important that we continue to share these values here. It helps us feel connected."
She feels a responsibility to set an example for her team as a woman leader.
"I try to show them that success for women in this industry is possible, and I want them to feel comfortable being able to talk to me about anything. We have a small team, but we are extremely close, and I'm proud of that," Yu said.
It's undeniable that Yu is, in fact, leading by example. There was also a silver lining from all the challenges Yu faced during the pandemic: she was now well-positioned among top Korean delegates and government officials. This led to one of her most memorable experiences to date - an invitation by the U.S. Embassy to represent Hawaiian at a state dinner hosted last May by South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol. It was there she had a chance to meet and speak with U.S. President Joe Biden.
"As I was waiting to speak with him, I was thinking 'how can I show him that I'm from Hawaiian Airlines?'" Yu explained. "So when I finally walked up to him, I said 'aloha!' He smiled so big and replied back with 'aloha.' It was such an honor to represent Hawaiian and I'll never forget that day."