Hawaii flights to grow by 6% more seats

Increase in capacity this spring indicates easing of economic downturn

By Alan Yonan Jr.
Advertiser Staff Writer

Airlines plan to boost the number of passenger seats to Hawai’i by nearly 6 percent this spring, providing further evidence that the recovery in tourism is gaining traction.

The increase in air seats continues a trend that began late last year when several carriers announced plans to expand flights to the Islands.

However, even with the latest projected increase in seats, airline capacity on routes to Hawai’i is still below levels that existed before Aloha and ATA airlines folded in spring 2008, marking the start of the visitor industry downturn.

The 2.33 million air seats that carriers have scheduled to Hawai’i during the March-through-May period represents a 5.6 percent increase over the same three-month period in 2009, according to the report from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“This signals an improvement in the tourism market,” said Chris Kam, senior director of market insights for the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau.

“Capacity is still running behind what we had before the Aloha and ATA closures. But we’re headed in the right direction. The airlines are continuing to align capacity with demand.”

The HTA, using flight data from an airline industry publication called the Official Aviation Guide, projects seats on nonstop flights to Hawai’i on a three-month rolling basis. The numbers turned positive since December on a year-over-year basis, after running in the negative for most of 2009 and 2008.

A recent HVCB study concluded that the nation’s airline industry plans to add about 500,000 more passenger seats to the state this year, Kam said.

Rising fuel prices and the global economic downturn in past years squeezed profits of many carriers, forcing them to increase their efficiency by trimming excess capacity and tacking on charges for everything from excess baggage to pillows.

“Airlines have gotten a lot better about managing their capacity. If a route is not performing it won’t be there long,” Kam said.

Marsha Wienert, state tourism liaison, said she was encouraged that much of the growth in air seats in the latest report was to the Neighbor Islands.

“If you look at the islands impacted the greatest by the downturn, it’s been the Neighbor Islands,” Wienert said. “They have been going through some very difficult times. This kind of increase in seats going to their market can only be positive.”

Among the carriers boosting their Hawai’i service this spring is Continental Airlines, which will launch four flights a week to Maui from Orange County in March. Continental also will increase the frequency of its Orange County-Honolulu flights from four days a week to seven days a week.

Alaska Airlines in March will launch nonstop service to Maui and Kona from San Jose, Calif., as well as nonstop flights to Maui from Sacramento four times a week. The San Jose-Maui flights will be three times a week, the San Jose-Kona flights four days a week, and the Sacramento-Maui flights seven days a week.

The additional California flights are reflected in a 5.1 percent increase to 1.43 million in projected air seats from the U.S. West during the March-through-May period. Air seats from the U.S. East are projected to increase by 6.3 percent to 245,459.

Air seats from international destinations are forecast to rise 6.7 percent to 651,163, including a 3.2 percent increase from Japan to 407,823.

Reach Alan Yonan Jr. at ayonan@honoluluadvertiser.com.