Hawaiian Airlines' Struggles and the Specter of a Third Bankruptcy

Hawaiian Airlines’ Struggles and the Specter of a Third Bankruptcy

Some thirty years ago, Hawaiian Airlines faced a rough patch characterized by accumulated and significant financial losses for years. Sound familiar? Now, the carrier is still struggling to return from Covid, among other issues, resulting in unprofitable operations.

Hawaiian lost $100 million in the last quarter of 2023. That’s over a million dollars a day.

That amounted to a net loss of $260 million for the year. It’s more problems that they can shake a stick at and Hawaiian is, arguably, too small to be resilient in an intense market with the likes of Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest, and United Airlines.

What can prior problems Hawaiian survived tell us about what may lie ahead?

Hawaiian Drops Fares 24%, Match Southwest | 17-Routes-$91

Hawaii Chapter 11 bankruptcy, September 1993.

Hawaiian Airlines was forced to undergo multiple effective, cost-cutting measures, including reorganizing its debts, negotiating employee concessions, eliminating unneeded capacity, and streamlining its aircraft. Not only that, but Hawaiian sold its West Maui airport to the state, and moved to an all-jet aircraft fleet.

Quickly moving to evolve into a modern fleet, the airline leased a series of DC-10 planes (which many of us still remember). At that time, Hawaiian adopted their Sabre system for online reservations. While the DC-10’s were gone within a decade, the Sabre system stayed with Hawaiian until last spring. That’s when the airline underwent a largely failed and operationally devastating upgrade to the Amadeus reservation system that’s been hard to recover from. The project has still not been entirely completed to this day. Some of it awaits the merger with Alaska Airlines, as Hawaiian executives advised Beat of Hawaii in December.

Hawaiian Airlines 767

Soon after 2000, Hawaiian modernized its fleet with huge and sweeping changes.

It began something so vast that it seems daunting today for the small regional airline. Hawaiian acquired 14 Boeing 767 jets from various sources and in different configurations. These were nonetheless, a huge step forward for Hawaiian.

Maui Airport Collision Between Hawaiian Jet And Ground Vehicle Sparks Investigation

A new and vastly improved interisland fleet – Boeing 717.

Not only that, but Hawaiian acquired its entire Boeing 717 fleet at the end of the 90’s and began flying the new planes in 2001. It was another huge upgrade that those who live here won’t forget. These brought interisland flying into the modern age. That fleet continued to expand for almost a decade, including further interisland growth resulting from Aloha Airlines’s failure.

At about the same time, Hawaiian distinguished its brand with the unique and retro “Pualani” that we all still recognize throughout their branding decades later, both in tail art and elsewhere. It followed an earlier version (below), from 1973.

Hawaiian Airlines Severe Turbulence Results In Hospitalizations Today

Another Chapter 11 bankruptcy struck Hawaiian in March 2003.

As the airline continued to expand, it reached a sudden impasse. In what has largely been attributed to an abrupt industry-wide decrease in bookings, multiple airlines, including United Airlines, announced big layoffs. Hawaiian Airlines filed again for bankruptcy protection. U.S. Airways and United Airlines did as well.

Hawaiian Airlines’ filing indicated more than $100 million in debt at that time. That pales, however, when compared with the $900M in Hawaiian Airlines’ debt that Alaska is set to assume if that deal goes through.

Airlines Cut Maui Flights To Correspond With Tourism Plunge

Hawaiian emerged from bankruptcy in June 2005.

Many new services and great changes marked the next decade at Hawaiian. It included expansion at its most profitable California gateways. Hawaiian also successfully launched a second major Hawaii hub at Kahului Maui, including nonstop Los Angeles to Maui flights that started in 2014.

Hawaiian Airlines Cancels Many Flights As A321 Problems Deepen

Airbus A321neo again transformed Hawaiian Airlines in 2018.

Introduced in 2018, the troubled A321neo fleet became the backbone of the airline’s mainland routes, offering increased fuel efficiency and new travel possibilities. With 18 A321neo aircraft, Hawaiian Airlines could compete for the first time on essential, lower-traffic routes, including direct flights to the Big Island and Kauai. It also made travel from cities like Salt Lake City and Denver to Hawaii feasible, although those have been slow to materialize.

The 321neo’s efficiency allowed Hawaiian to refocus its larger A330 wide-body fleet on long-haul growth, expanding international routes and serving high-density mainland routes.

A321neo rocked by engine problems + up to one year out of service per plane.

Pratt & Whitney Engine Repair

Despite its success, the A321neo’s role as a workhorse for Hawaiian Airlines has been shaken by problems with the Pratt & Whitney engines that power the plane. Due to manufacturing defects, those continue to require expensive aircraft downtime for inspection and repairs.

More Masks on Hawaii Flights And Wastewater Tests Cause Alarm

Covid challenges from which Hawaiian has not fully recovered.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought more unforeseen problems, starting with staggering financial losses. Hawaii’s travel quarantine and downsizing followed. Hawaiian ditched its smaller Ohana by Hawaiian operation.

Is Hawaiian Airlines Dreamliner For You? Flights On Sale

Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner fleet is coming this spring.

Hawaiian Airlines is set to launch its Dreamliner fleet, with the first flights from California to Hawaii scheduled to start in less than 90 days. The initial routes are from and to the West Coast, with longer flights to follow.

The Hawaiian Airlines Dreamliner misses one very important premium option.

The Dreamliner offers 34 business-class lie-flat suites with 18-inch monitors, wireless chargers, and direct aisle maximizing space and providing a 12-inch seatback monitor with USB-A and USB-C charging ports. Meanwhile, economy seating is configured in a 3-3-3 layout.

Delta Hawaii Premium Economy

No lucrative and in-demand premium economy cabin.

Their Dreamliner does not offer premium economy, distinguishing it from other airlines’ widebody planes flying to Hawaii.

Industry competitive pressure may still lead to the evolution of premium economy later at Hawaiian. Premium economy offers a middle ground between economy and business/first class, featuring better seats, more legroom, upgraded meals, dedicated flight attendants, and additional amenities. It is lucrative for airlines and in high demand by passengers, and the absence of the offering may later be seen as shortsighted.

Hawaiian Airlines only upgrade from economy other than business will be Extra Comfort seating for additional legroom. That product remains familiar, providing generous legroom at variable costs. However, these extra legroom seats are unrelated to an actual and separate premium economy offering as found on American, Delta, and United.

Hawaiian Airlines Dreamliner extra legroom.

Dreamliner largely intended for Hawaiian international routes that are coming up short.

The Dreamliner’s efficiency and range allow for new routes, including nonstop flights to Southeast Asia and London. Hawaiian Airlines plans to have 12 Dreamliner planes in total. Business class travelers and those in groups of three or four in economy may find the Dreamliner experience particularly enjoyable with its 3x3x3 economy seating. However, solo economy passengers may prefer to stick with middle section aisle seats for convenience.

With these planes, ideally suited to international travel and a select few premium mainland routes, another problem arises. As we pointed out in the recent article about the lack of Japanese visitors to Hawaii now and in the foreseeable future, we also note that other international travel is also not resuming.

Hawaiian Airlines’ important international routes have never returned to normalcy.

The airline once had routes to 18 international destinations, including American Samoa, Brisbane and Sydney, Australia, Beijing, Rarotonga, Papeete, Guam, six Japan airports, Auckland, Manila, Apia, Seoul, and Taipei. But of those, unfortunately, a majority did not work out and were either terminated or reduced.

Hawaiian Air international routes currently operating are:

  • Pago Pago (two to three times weekly).
  • Four Japan airports (plus one more returning this spring). We reported yesterday that some Hawaiian Airlines flights from Japan are being cut.
  • Auckland (three times weekly, four months of the year only).
  • Sydney (five times weekly).
  • Rarotonga (once weekly). When flights started, the inaugural fare was over $900. It is now just $600 roundtrip.
  • Papeete (once weekly).
  • Seoul (five times weekly)

Auckland to Honolulu will operate just four months of the year.

The route from New Zealand to Hawaii was the darling of Hawaiian Airlines when it was first introduced over a decade ago. But things have changed in ways largely out of Hawaiian’s control.

Hawaiian announced it would reduce its year-round Auckland route significantly. It will stop the three times weekly service on March 19 and not fly that service again until November 16. When that cut was announced, Hawaiian said it would help them add capacity on other routes, but that has not happened.

New Zealand vacations during North America’s summer have long been trendy. However, the demand is still not adequate to continue providing the service on even a limited number of days per week. The New Zealand dollar is valued at just $0.61, which is undoubtedly a big part of the problem, as is true with the Japanese yen.

Alaska Airlines could come at the ideal time for Hawaiian Air.

The plans to acquire Hawaiian Airlines for $1.9 billion yet operate as separate brands could be a boon for Hawaiian Airlines in many ways.

Hawaiian hopes to be acquired by Alaska Airlines, as we learned in December. If the airline merger resistant US Justice Department approves the deal, new opportunities may open for both Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines. Alaska will suddenly be a much bigger widebody-inclusive airline with many new routes. Hawaiian will become part of the OneWorld Alliance that Alaska recently joined. And the two airlines together will have a greater economy of scale much needed for competition.

If, on the other hand, the merger with Alaska is not consummated, the possibility of another Hawaiian Airlines bankruptcy is being widely rumored.

Mark Dunkerley Hawaiian Airlines

What role did Hawaiian’s prior CEO play?

Years ago, Mark Dunkerley was instrumental in reviving Hawaiian and was largely credited with the company’s turnaround and new, at the time, fleets. When he left his position to Peter Ingram in 2017, the company was well positioned for the future, or so it seemed. No one knew what would happen in the years that followed.

British-born Dunkerley’s unique pride has long extended beyond the success he helped achieve at Hawaiian Airlines. He sees the company’s role as one of a cultural ambassador for Hawaii. He said of the opportunity to transport the essence of Hawaii to global corners, “We carry the banner of Hawaii in a way that no other carrier can possibly do.”

We welcome your thoughts on the future of Hawaiian Airlines.

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47 thoughts on “Hawaiian Airlines’ Struggles and the Specter of a Third Bankruptcy”

  1. Our family of 30 will be going to the big island in June 2024. We’ve been waiting for Hawaiian airline(our preferred choice) tickets prices to go down. Would it be safer for us to look at another airline? What would happen to our tickets if Hawaiian airlines does go bankrupt by this summer?

    1. Go with Hawaiian. Even if they do declare bankruptcy they will continue to operate. Now is a great time for folks to step in to help out a local business that has been around about a decade. /it would be a shame to lose them.

    1. What does Covid, the Maui fire, 8L closure, the NEO issues and the very slow recovery of the Japanese market that HA is a major player in have to do with CEO problems? I’m curious how people can blame management for that? 900 million debt and the resulting interest payments have simply made the merger a win/win deal for the two companies thanks to Alaska’s ability to absorb that and capitalize on HA’s strengths going forward.
      Smart move for both airlines and forward thinking by the execs of both.

      1. Peter I- Oops, I forgot “John W.”
        I feel your pain for HA. I hope you get your “just” stock payout.
        Did you forget about your miserable technology failures, or the huge 43% raises granted in January 2023, or the choice of poor quality planes, or the miserable LAX and Honolulu terminals that passengers hate? Have you tried to eat the sandwich in a bag?
        If not you Peter, who is to blame?
        PS, please see my reply to your tenth or eleventh post below in this thread.

        1. Hi Rob.

          We appreciate your many comments to date. Perhaps you’re just analogizing between John W. and Peter I. But we can tell you unequivocally that John W. is a real person, and he is not Peter Ingram. We’ve met them both.


  2. The other “history repeating itself”, it seems, is mainland airlines running airlines in our 50th State out of business, and then not picking up the pieces. Aloha Airlines was killed by Mesa Airlines from the mainland (aka “Go! Airlines) undercutting prices until Aloha was gone, and then also “Go!” Airlines disappeared. And then there is Southwest Airlines. All of the wonderful things Southwest promised are far outweighed, in my opinion, by Southwest’s horribly negative effects on Hawaiian Airlines. So when the opponents of the proposed Alaskan-Hawaiian merger, perhaps including the current federal administration, get their way, resulting in the demise of Hawaiian Airlines, who will step in to fill that enormous void?

    1. Hawaiian & Aloha tried to merge 3 times. The last was 2001. It would have been a good fit but it was blocked by various groups including, Hawaiian employees & the elected (senators) officials of the state of Hawaii. Aloha, being prevented from merging had to go it alone. We all know how that turned out.

    2. Lets look where HA is really incorporated.

      Definitions . Whenever used herein:
      “HAWAIIAN” means Hawaiian Airlines, Inc., a Delaware corporation, with 3375 Koapaka St., Ste. G350, Honolulu, HI 96819 as its mailing address.

  3. Not sure where your airfare to Rarotonga quote originates, but it has been stuck on $907/person since late November. It was as low as $650, but has shot back up and not come back down. As soon as it comes down, we are back on it.

    If you guys have an inside line on $6xx airfare to RAR, please let me know!

    1. Hi Justin.

      It was $600 yesterday via Google Flights to Hawaiian. It is back at $900 again today. That one’s worth watching.


  4. Karma is a cruel mistress, what goes around comes around. Hawaiian Airlines stakeholders, employees & elected officials put an end to the planned merger between them & Aloha. History is now repeating itself, a very sad situation. I hope the merger with Alaska goes through for the sake of all the HA employees. But, in a few years, if the Virgin America scenario is any road map the Hawaiian name will be gone, just a memory to reminisce about.

  5. Hawaiian airlines Debt to Equity Ratio is a horrible 8.94 and climbing fast. A good ratio 1 to 1.5 anything over 5 is unacceptable to the market. As Hawaiians Debt to Equity Ratio number rises stock prices have fallen to below 14 dollars a share and falling. When merger with Alaska was announced shares just above 14 dollars a share. If the merger fails Hawaiians stocks will plunge announcing the end of the airline all together.

    Here’s reality, a chapter 11 filing will not save Hawaiian this go round.

    1. I don’t know what stock you are talking about but it wasn’t HA. They were sub $5 before the merger was announced. In June of 2021, they were over $28 (yes, during the pandemic). Hawaiian Airlines is worth saving, it’s worth investing in. If they have to file for bankruptcy again in order to keep them afloat and their employees living in-doors, so be it. I will support them like Ohana until the bitter end, theirs or mine 🙂

  6. Sadly, the next chapter in Hawaiian Airlines financial tragedy will be mass layoffs.
    The same scenario is playing out for UPS, Amazon, Google, and UAW workers-big raises result in big losses- leading to mass layoffs. Sad, the greedy beat the needy again.

      1. Beat of Hawaii states- Hawaiian is losing, “over one million dollars a day.” Stop and think what that means, one million dollars a day!
        Last I looked, Alaska is not a charity.
        The coming job cuts will be brutal with or without the acquisition.
        Thank goodness we still have Southwest Airlines for fair priced, dependable inter-island flights.

        1. It won’t be that way with Hawaiian gone.
          Southwest is not a charity either.
          Guess what happens to the fares if they are the only game in town.

          1. You are correct Alan….Rob T is a good example of why the SWA folks alienated so many people in Hawaii. Unlike Alaska, when SWA entered the market they displayed a very arrogant, disrespectful attitude towards Hawaiian…now his posts are trying to paint the HA/AS situation as negativity as he can when the reality is it’s simply a merger of the two best airlines that serve Hawaii and will continue to be even stronger together. All of HA’s losses were from past problems that no longer apply. Fortunately Alaska has the means to erase that debt and create a great airline with mutually beneficial synergies. Good for them and good for Hawaii.

        2. Just to be clear per my strong response to Rob…there’s a common response floating around that is pro SWA and takes petty swipes at the merger. Of course they don’t want their competitors to be stronger. As always, SWA is aggressively self centered. I don’t think they necessarily care about the big picture and the benefits to Hawaii of having a strong AS/HA combining to create more and better travel options to Hawaii.

  7. Hawaiian Air is *too big to fail*. It has been to big to fail in the past and now things are even more critical. It is also too precious for our state to be acquired by a mainland corporation and merged into oblivion a la Virgin America.

    Gov. Green, Ed Case, Brian Schwartz… wake up ! Get involved now with a bailout proposal. Or, the situation here in the islands will become even more dire, as we will loose the remaining control we have on the visitor industry here to more West Coast corporate structures. And all the technology jobs will go to Seattle, strangling the future of our kids. Part of the proposal find an experienced CEO / partner for Peter Ingram, if he agrees to stay.

    1. Peter I- Oops, I mean John W. I feel your passion for HA. However, your choice of adjectives-“arrogant, disrespectful, petty, and aggressively self-centered” to describe “SWA and SWA folks” seem lacking in aloha and logic.
      You can’t really believe “All of HA’s losses were from past problems that no longer apply?”

      1. Rob, In SWA’s Oakland offices they had a large ceramic shark painted in SWA colors trying to devour two small fish, one painted in HA colors, the other in Alaska’s. Not an isolated incident but best sums up the SWA approach to Hawaii. Trying to take local jobs away from the people that live here for their own growth, hence my opinion of them. Hawaiian was very profitable from the Dunkerley era till COVID. One year they had the highest operating profit margin in the industry, another their stock hit $60. Their issues all started with COVID. SWA came here like someone moving to Hawaii and trying to talk pidgin when they can’t even pronounce the names of the streets.

        1. Funny that Hawaiian is now playing the victim. When Aloha went under their pilots’ were flying victory flags out of their aircraft windows. In addition, when SWA announced intention to add Hawaii many of Hawaiian employees including those in the C-suite predicted their failure and possibly the failure of their company. No one is innocent.

  8. Excellent article BOH editors Rob and Jeff.
    As one who has appreciated HA for many decades, and now especially with their expanded wide body service from AUS to HNL, I agree with you completely that while the 787 is going to be a great addition to the HA fleet, the decision not to have premium economy is a Huge mistake that will have to be reversed, and the sooner the better, in order to stay competitive with AA, DL, and UA in the mainland to Hawaii market.
    Keep up the great reporting!

    1. Hi Daryl.

      Thank you! We haven’t had any meaningful answer from the folk at HA as to way why they decided to go a different direction than the rest of the airline industry as far
      premium economy.


  9. And John, don’t forget that in October, Larry Ellison testified in court that Hawaiian did everything it could to drive Island Air out of business…what goes around comes around! Yeah, it sucks when you’re on the losing end doesn’t it? Afterward, Hawaiian pulled Ohana by Hawaiian out of Molokai and Lanai and left the residents of Molokai and Lanai without any viable twin turboprop airline. Yeah, tough luck for everybody else huh? Ask the state taxpayer of Hawaii about the Kapalua airport which the state bought from Hawaiian Airlines. The taxpayers got stiffed on this purchase to help Hawaiian Airlines out.

  10. Aloha,
    HA is missing the importance of a great user experience. Their bread & butter (mainland travelers) expect this. That means the horrible, clunky rollout of Amadeus has made it worse. It’s a horrible oversight & misstep. No one in 2024 wants to sit on hold with a call center to change or cancel a flight that can be simply done in an app, such as Southwest. Further, why would we have to manage our cancellations/credits, when the system should be? Again, look at Southwest. And, Hawaiian “pockets” the difference between your credit amount and future rebooking! Peter dropped the ball on a huge obvious opportunity to win. Here we are.

  11. Oh and I left out the predatory attack by SWA. SWA has much deeper pockets but Hawaiian is still the preferred inter island carrier by far. Many more flights, higher load factors, better service and higher ticket yields. Combining with Alaska will strengthen Inter Island and even has the potential of restoring service to MKK and LNY. SWA COO was on the morning news trying to take potshots at the merger. Pretty transparent and it didn’t look like Howard Dicus was buying it.

    1. Hi John.

      However people feel about Southwest, a couple of things come to mind. First is the enthusiasm felt by Hawaii residents upon learning Southwest was coming. The second is the high quality of the product they offer here, both interisland and trans-Pacific.


      1. Agreed and despite my comments I think the competition is a good thing…. I really don’t think the fare wars as SWA established themselves inter island were that big a factor in HA’s current financial quagmire.. HA has seen much stiffer inter island competition all the way back to when Mid Pac, Aloha and Hawaiian fought over $9.95 cent inter island tickets!

        1. Hi John.

          Yes, concur with you that interisland fare wars have not been the largest of factors. But having low prices for years on their largest routes didn’t help. Being shut down during Covid, not coming back internationally even now including due to currency conversions, cost of operations including huge pay increases, and the A321 engines all appears to be more significant.


      2. Jeff & Rob, not sure I can follow you here. Any enthusiasm we felt towards Southwest was because Dunkerly and Ingram were strangling us with, what we thought then, were unreasonably high interisland fares. But here in Hilo and Kona very few of our community were looking forward to Southwest, knowing what would happen. (We saw it with Mesa/Go before).

  12. BOH likes to talk about HA’s debt a lot but what about the assets that it has to offset that debt? Seems like the real issue when it comes to debt is not the amount but (1) are the assets acquired by the debt productive and (2) is that productivity enough to service the debt? Clearly, HA needs to cut costs fast in order to turn a profit and be able to service that debt.

    Also, if the debt problem is so severe at HA, why would Alaska choose to buy them on this side of bankruptcy? Why not allow HA to go into receivership, shed some baggage, and then pick up the pieces for a discounted price?

    Seems like either the debt is not a problem and that’s why Alaska is willing to buy HA or the debt is a problem and Alaska should run away.

    1. Perhaps George because if HA goes through the BK process all bets are off as to where their assets go and in what form, the courts decide. The Alaska deal is the best chance of preserving HA’s rich legacy. Much better for the employees of course, (Bk is never kind to employees)but also better for Hawaii to have Alaska combine the synergies of both carriers to create and even better airline serving the State

  13. Mark Dunkerley left Hawaiian Air in a good position. So what happened with his successor- the leader of a company ensures the profit & success? Another hefty golden parachute as a result of poor performance & acquisition…. Not acceptable. Hawn has to be acquired due to financial condition but no golden severance for Ingram. Aren’t employees ranked on performance?

    1. Not sure how Covid, the Maui fire, the NEO engine problems, Runway 8L closure and the weak return of Japan as well the weak Yen, AUD and NZD are the fault of current management??? All problems that will be behind them with this merger, but someone has to pay the 900 million debt they caused. The Alaska/Hawaiian synergy seems to be the best option for the stockholders as well as the employees and in fact, the State of Hawaii too. The State would be deeply hurt by the uncertainties of a BK filing as would the employees.

      1. John, yes, HA was facing a perfect storm. These historic conditions might never re-occur. Hence it makes sense for our government to step in, as other governments around the globe already did.

        We blame management because it seems to be taking a selfish view, doesn’t truly have the future of Hawaii in mind, seems to be engineering an “easy out” for themselves, rather than buckle up and fight a la Mr. Magoon did for so many years. Please reconsider!

  14. Interesting connection….. Hawaiian airlines has the original 1929 Bellanca Pacemaker that was used to start Inter Island Airways, the genesis of Hawaiian. HA restored and operated that plane thanks to Mark Dunkerley. Mark is a very accomplished pilot (owned and competed with his Extra 300 competition aerobatic plane) as well as seen by most for HA’s pre Covid success. Turns out that Bellanca was acquired by Star Air Service in 1935, Star became Alaska Airlines.
    Mark gave the CEO of Alaska a ride in it. He commented that if HA was ever done with it Alaska would love to have that piece of history.
    1.9 billion may seem like a lot to buy a Bellanca Pacemaker (HA still has it) but Alaska is getting a great deal with all that comes with it!

  15. Well said Rob and Jeff….. Hawaiian’s story of survival against long odds is an amazing one. HA’s place as the only airline to survive deregulation without merging appears to finally be over. The issues since 2019 would have already killed an airline without the strong brand identity and dedicated employees that made Hawaiian what it is. Change has to be hard for the employees but Alaska is cut from the same cloth as Hawaiian. A smaller airline that survived against much bigger airlines by providing better service as well as also having dedicated employees that so often go above and beyond.
    Alaska is the only airline that could pull off a merger and keep the spirit and identity of both alive and create a whole new level of opportunity.

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