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Alaska Airlines Struggles For Hawaii Travel Spot After 15 Years

It’s a vastly different time than when Alaska Airlines started flying to Hawaii 15 years ago. We hadn’t even started thinking about Southwest Hawaii flights. And Hawaiian Airlines had no planes to fly directly to the neighbor islands from the mainland.

When Alaska Hawaii flights started, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

Fifteen years ago, we were approaching the demise of much beloved Aloha Airlines, whose exit we’d long anticipated for many reasons. ATA Airlines was also at the time on its way to bankruptcy. What was left behind was a void and a huge opportunity for an airline with smart thinking and just the right planes. Enters Alaska Airlines!

The first Alaska flight was from Seattle to Honolulu in October 2007. Lihue flights started immediately thereafter, followed soon by Anchorage to Honolulu and both Kona and Kahului flights.

Celebrating 15- years of Alaska Airlines Hawaii flights this week.

It culminated Monday night with a big party in Honolulu hosted by Alaska Airlines. Beat of Hawaii editor Jeff island hopped to attend the birthday gala. In attendance was a wide range of people from throughout Hawaii’s travel industry, plus executives and employees of  Alaska Airlines, including their CEO Ben Minicucci. The event was organized by Director of Sales, Community & Public Relations, Daniel Chun, a well-respected, popular fixture in Hawaii travel who joined Alaska more than a decade ago.

Dignitaries attending the anniversary event included Honolulu’s mayor and Hawaii’s governor. Governor Ige said he has a soft spot in his heart for Alaska Airlines because they entered the Hawaii travel scene just as two other airlines were folding. The additional lift Alaska offered was vital at that time for Hawaii’s economy.

One of the standouts in our minds that was evident at Alaska’s anniversary celebration is their contribution beyond just flights to Hawaii. The company is known for its philanthropy and local partnerships. That has been the case for as long as we can remember. Yesterday’s event, for example, took place at the Weinberg Ho‘okupu Center, the home to Kupu, a leading Hawaii environmental education nonprofit.

Kupu offers a first-of-its-kind facility devoted to encouraging and preparing local youth to become leaders in the green jobs sector. Kupu was the large event’s caterer, and Jeff had a chance to enjoy the food and meet both the kids and their CEO, John Leong. It’s an impressive undertaking.

Alaska/Mokulele partnership announced.

Ben Minicucci (Alaska CEO) spoke with guests about today’s announced partnership with Mokulele Airlines for a one-ticket connecting service to all its Hawaii destinations. Guests will earn Alaska miles on Mokulele flights. That is set to begin early in 2023. Alaska said that Mokulele has over 800 weekly flights, including to underserved West Maui, Hilo, Waimea (Big Island), Lanai, and Molokai. Mokulele flies primarily with 9-passenger Grand Caravans and has one 28-passenger Saab 340 in service and one more coming.

Alaska Airlines’ Hawaii product.

The airline has up to 30 nonstop daily flights from Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego) to Honolulu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. Some flights are seasonal.

In terms of flight offerings, Alaska flies Boeing 737NG and 737MAX planes to Hawaii, which is largely the same as what Southwest uses. Alaska has had only direct-to-island flights, without interisland, at least until the Mokulele deal commences. By way of comparison, Southwest can also bring guests interisland without changing carriers.

As for the service component, Alaska offers economy, a primarily extended legroom product (dubbed Premium Class), and a business class product still called First Class. They offer $8 WiFi (same as Southwest). Hawaiian’s WiFi will be free when it begins in 2023. Alaska has an unusually good range (for an airline) of upgraded fresh meal options that can be preordered in all classes.

Southwest and Hawaiian competition and what’s in the future for Alaska Hawaii flights.

As we said above, Southwest wasn’t even in our mind’s eye when Alaska jumped into the fray 15 years ago. Southwest only came to Hawaii in 2019. Here’s what is going on in the competition.

1. Southwest competes with Alaska on all fronts except the Pacific Northwest, where it reigns dominant. Southwest is a force to be reckoned with, and that’s the reality of Alaska’s situation with Hawaii flights. From all its California gateways cities, Alaska faces direct competition with Southwest Airlines. In economy, Southwest’s product is excellent, which attests to their popularity with California travelers. While Alaska would seemingly be more Hawaii focused than ubiquitous Southwest, remember that in Southwest’s “c-suite” sits an ex-Hawaiian Airlines’ guru, Andy Watterson, who’s perhaps destinated to lead SWA at some point.

There’s not much differentiation in aircraft between Alaska and Southwest, with roughly the same fleet. On the other hand, two points do make a difference. First, Alaska seems to have a stronger suit for attracting business travelers. How much that matters to Hawaii, however, may not be huge. Alaska also has a somewhat more premium soft-product (service) in economy, and does have a business class product offering that is a significant upgrade from economy, albeit not the popular lie flat.

2. Hawaiian Airlines added their fleet of narrowbody A321neo planes starting in 2018. That was the first time the Hawaii bellwether could compete with Alaska directly on thin routes to the neighbor islands. It made Hawaiian nimble for the first time and provided another obstacle for Alaska’s raison d’etre in Hawaii – the direct-to-island service. And for those cities where Hawaiian has A330 flights, there’s wide-body plus lie-flat seating which is in a different league from Alaska.

Going forward, it’s obvious that Alaska will be faced with tough choices in Hawaii.

The first is going head-to-head with Southwest. While doing that with Hawaiian is more feasible, the behemoth 800-pound gorilla Southwest is just no one you want to tangle with. And yet that’s what’s happening from gateways like San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Jose. These were great routes for Alaska before Southwest and before Hawaiian’s narrowbody fleet. Now, they are costly as ticket prices remain suppressed.

Alaska, like Southwest and Hawaiian, is limited in the range of its narrow-body fleets. When American and United take deliveries of their new 321xlr planes, that will change the Hawaii flight landscape significantly. Those planes are nearly as distance-capable as the hardiest of wide bodies including Hawaiian’s A330 or its upcoming Dreamliner fleets.

It will be interesting to see what happens to airlines serving Hawaii over the next 15 years. What are your predictions?

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32 thoughts on “Alaska Airlines Struggles For Hawaii Travel Spot After 15 Years”

  1. The takeover of Hawaiian by Alaska and their relationship with American and One World including Qantas and Japan Airlines is very interesting, use those United Miles now….

  2. WOW!
    This is quite some news for a sleepy Sunday morning in Kalaheo! Both carriers have provided good service. I hope the combined company can maintain the customer service that Alaska provides. To be able to call Alaska and get a friendly voice such as “Nicole from Olympia, Washington” rather than a sweet voice from out of the country who cannot always be understood or understand my question.
    As a Hawaiian Platinum flyer, I am looking forward to seeing how this merger / take over works out for all of the flyers.
    Mahalo for all you do and keeping us informed,
    Kalaheo, HI

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