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Hawaii tourism officials are courting about a dozen airlines not currently serving Hawaii, which they hope will some day set up shop here.
Even as visitor arrivals and spending continue on a record pace for the third straight year, those involved in the state’s No. 1 industry can’t afford to get complacent. Airplanes are movable assets and could easily be redeployed elsewhere.
“You’re in a competitive marketplace for air service,” airline consultant Brad DiFiore of Ailevon Pacific. DiFiore told a near-capacity room of several hundred Thursday at the Hawai’i Tourism Authority’s annual two-day conference at the Hawai’i Convention Center.
“Airlines move airplanes around all the time,” DiFiore said. “It’s very, very easy. You have to fight for (Hawaii) all the time. Don’t give up on us, and don’t take it for granted because I absolutely assure you that there are plenty enough stations out there that are fighting for the same service and spending big dollars to do it. We don’t have to buy it, but we sure have to fight for it.”
DiFiore said two low-cost carriers from Asia — Philippines-based Cebu Pacific and South Korea-based Jin Air — are targeting to begin service to Honolulu next year. Skymark Airlines, a Japanese carrier with Tokyo-Haneda slots, also has talked about starting Honolulu service next year but Hawaii tourism officials are taking a cautious stance because of Skymark’s current financial problems.
Five other international airlines that have had discussions about or expressed an interest in Hawaii include Air Asia, a long-haul, low-fare carrier based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Air Busan, South Korea’s low-cost carrier; Norwegian Air, an Oslo, Norway-based carrier that recently has been expanding to the U.S.; Scoot, a low-fare, long-haul carrier out of Singapore; and Hong Kong Airlines. Other airlines have contacted HTA as well, DiFiore said.
“Hong Kong is probably the next best Asia market for Hawaii,” DiFiore said. “It’s an unserved market and that’s an airline (Hawaii has) focused some effort on.”
Neither Jin Air nor Air Busan currently flies wide-body jets now and would need to acquire them to fly to Hawaii, but Jin Air President Ma Won said at a press event Friday in South Korea that Jin Air plans to buy a Boeing 777-200ER jet by the end of this year and another two next year.
“We plan to offer flights to Hong Kong or Guam first and add more long-distance routes to Hawaii or elsewhere from sometime next year,” Ma said in a story that appeared on the website english.chosun.com.
Skymark has the appropriate aircraft but it’s in a business cabin configuration and would need to be altered to accommodate additional passengers, DiFiore said.
On the domestic front, Southwest Airlines has talked for several years about flying to Hawaii but DiFiore wouldn’t conjecture any further than to say that he expects it to happen within the next three to 10 years.
Virgin America, which is planning an initial public offering, is considering flying to Honolulu. JetBlue Airways is considered a long shot at this point, DiFiore said.
HTA now expects total air seats to Hawaii will increase 3.9 percent this year, revised upward from its forecast of 1.8 percent at the start of 2014, David Uchiyama, vice president of brand management for HTA, said Thursday.
U.S. seats are expected to increase 4.5 percent after getting a boost from Hawaiian Airlines, which redeployed some aircraft from its international routes to domestic routes, and Delta Air Lines, which expanded service in Los Angeles and Seattle and added seasonal flights from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The latest forecast is a reversal from an earlier forecast of a 0.1 percent decline in airline seats.
International air seats, meanwhile, were revised lower to a 2.5 percent increase, down from the 5.4 percent increase predicted at the beginning of the year. International arrivals will get a little boost later this year from Air Canada’s low-cost carrier Rouge, which will begin Toronto-Honolulu service in November.
Still, there are voids to fill.
Uchiyama said the state would like to bring Minnesota and Chicago back into the fold.
“We’re going to have to work with those carriers (serving those markets) to get someone to buy into those (Hawaii) routes,” Uchiyama said.
He also said the state needs to revive the Japan markets of Fukuoka, Sapporo and Sendai that are softening and improve interisland connectivity to distribute international travelers, especially from Japan.
HTA Chief Executive Officer Mike McCartney said the state has to do its part to drive demand to fill additional air seats, which were up 2.3 percent through the first seven months of this year.
“My greatest concern is competition that we face in Mexico and the Caribbean,” he said. “We’re in a very competitive world and it’s only going to get more competitive.” ___