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At long last, Hawaiian Airlines is flying to China.
The state’s largest carrier, whose bid for China service was rejected nine years ago by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is scheduled to take off on its first flight from Honolulu Airport to Beijing at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
It will be the 10th international route that Hawaiian has begun since November 2010 and one that offers great promise for the state economy since Chinese visitors last year were the highest-spending group in the islands at nearly $400 per person per day. Hawaiian will fly three times a week aboard its 294-seat Airbus A330-200.
“It’s not only a major move for Hawaiian but a major plus for the state of Hawaii because they’re going to bring in lots of tourists from China,” local aviation historian Peter Forman said. “This could be the beginning of ultimately some very important flying from China. China could grow to be a real force in Hawaii’s tourism economy in the future, so this is an important first step in making that happen.”
Hawaiian is the second airline to start service between Beijing and Honolulu this year, following Air China, which began flying the route three times a week in January.
The first regularly scheduled China-to-Hawaii flight started in August 2011 when China Eastern Airlines began flying between Shanghai and Honolulu. China Eastern has increased its Shanghai service to five times a week from the initial two times per week. Beijing is China’s second-largest city with a population of over 20 million, while Shanghai is the largest with more than 23 million people.
Hawaiian has been gearing up for the Beijing route by opening sales offices in Beijing and Shanghai in 2012 and hiring 35 Mandarin-speaking flight attendants and 12 Mandarin-speaking customer service agents.
“In the decades ahead of us, tourism from China is going to be one of the sustaining pillars of our local economy,” Hawaiian President and CEO Mark Dunkerley said. “It is Hawaiian Airlines’ mission to encourage and support a healthy tourism industry in our islands.”
In 2005, Hawaiian had its application for San Diego-Honolulu-Shanghai service rejected by the U.S. DOT because the agency said Hawaiian’s flights “would benefit a relatively small number of travelers.”
The next two openings for China service were in 2007 and 2009. But Hawaiian passed up on the opportunity in 2007 due to difficulties Chinese citizens were having in obtaining visas, and then in 2009 had shifted its focus to expanding to Japan.
“We also recognized that the China market was liberalizing and by waiting we’d be better able to enter the market how and when we wanted to,” Hawaiian spokeswoman Ann Botticelli said.
Chinese arrivals in Hawaii grew 13.5 percent to 132,634 in 2013 from 116,866 the previous year, and through the first two months of this year were up 4.8 percent to 26,444 from 25,222.
More importantly to the state, though, are Chinese visitors’ generous spending habits. Chinese visitors spent $397.30 a day last year, nearly $120 a day more than the second-highest group, the Japanese.
“China will pay off for Hawaiian like a slot machine,” Colorado-based airline consultant Mike Boyd said. “They’re looking to get into a higher income tax bracket with that type of flying.”
David Uchiyama, vice president of brand management for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said having three carriers fly between Hawaii and China will be an advantage.
“It’s very important that we bring a variety of choices for the consumers to choose from and for the tour industry in China to work with,” Uchiyama said. “It stimulates attention for the destination because all of this is evolving with multiple carriers serving the destination and their multiple partnerships within the marketplace.”
Uchiyama is hoping that Hawaiian’s new Beijing service is more successful than its short-lived Taipei-Honolulu route. That city pairing ended April 7 after just 10 months of service because there was an insufficient awareness of Hawaii among Taiwanese residents, according to Dunkerley.
“A lot of the China success is tied to not only passengers that originate out of those points (in Beijing and Shanghai) but the ability to draw from regional feeder cities and connect to the carriers.” Uchiyama said. “I think Guangzhou would be the next likely candidate for China-Honolulu service because of the population based within the city, and its (geographical) relationship to Shanghai and Beijing because it forms a triangle there.”
HTA estimates the new Beijing-Honolulu service by Hawaiian will generate $81 million in annual visitor spending and $8.47 million in tax revenue for the state.
Hawaiian’s new service will depart Honolulu at 12:01 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and land at Beijing Capital International Airport at 5:55 a.m. the following day. The return flight departs Beijing at 1:05 a.m. every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and arrives in Honolulu at 4:40 p.m. the previous day (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday).