Prices Went From $5,500 To $99 Since Air Travel Reshaped Hawaii

Prices Went From $5,500 To $99 As Air Travel Reshaped Hawaii

When BOH editor Jeff took his first flight to Hawaii nearly a half-century ago, the price for the ticket was $199 round-trip, which is equal to $1,400 in today’s dollars. Editor Rob came to Hawaii in 1989. While he doesn’t remember his United Airlines flight that much, or the cost, he does remember feeling an immediate connection on arrival.

Also Below are two fascinating videos. The first is an early 1940s video likely of the Pan Am Clipper Honolulu taking off from Hawaii, and the second is a 1976 United Airlines Hawaii commercial, both iconic.

When was your first flight to Hawaii? Let us know in your comments. Jeff, as a commercial aviation aficionado, decided to do a recap of historic air travel to Hawaii. After all, it was air travel that transformed Hawaii and made it accessible to the world.

When Hawaii airline tickets cost $5,500.

Flights to Hawaii from the US Mainland began in 1936 when Pan Am carried passengers from San Francisco on the Martin M-130 “Hawaii Clipper.” The navigator on that flight was Fred Noonan, who later disappeared with Amelia Earhart on their 1937 round-the-world flight. The Clipper flew once a week and mainly brought cargo and mail with its 8 or 9 passengers who paid a premium price to be on board. More than anyone would pay today. In fact, the lead image above is of the Honolulu Clipper (a Boeing 314), which at the time was advertised at $278 one way. In today’s dollars, that is about $5,500. To see a video of the Boeing 314 take-off from Pearl Harbor, head to the bottom of the post.

Before that, James Dole (yes, the pineapple king) offered $25,000 to the first crew who could fly from Oakland to Honolulu. A dozen people died in what was called The Dole Derby before it was called off. Dole’s interest began with the 1927 Lindbergh solo flight across the Atlantic.

But the first flight in Hawaii, and not across the Atlantic, was done by Bud Mars, who took off from a polo field in Honolulu. His aircraft was a Curtiss pusher and the year was 1910. Thousands of people watched his demonstration flight. Six months later a man by the name of Clarence Walker became the first to crash in Hawaii using a similar type of aircraft. He survived after hitting a barn, a tree, and a telegraph pole.

Traveling to Hawaii has always been and remains exotic.

You are still to this day venturing to some of the most remote islands on earth when you travel to Hawaii. With the ease and frequency generally associated with modern-day travel, it is easy to forget the complexity of navigating oceans, where any error or technical problem could spell complete disaster. Let alone the fact that from the Hawaiian Islands, the nearest land is over 2,500 miles away.

Travel has helped define the Hawaii of today.

Even before flights to Hawaii began, the allure of the islands foretold what was to come. In the 1800s, travelers first sailed, then steamed by ship to Hawaii. As word spread about Hawaii, interest grew in what was then called the “Paradise of the Pacific.” As early as 1920, the rich and famous had already found Waikiki Beach and were traveling here by luxury ship. The first hotels included the Moana (Surfrider), which opened its doors in 1901. And then came air travel, which changed everything.

Hawaiian Airlines since 1929.

The first commercial interisland flights were born when a company that was to become Hawaiian Airlines began flying from Honolulu to Hilo via Maui, on a three-hour flight. Originally a steamship company subsidiary, their operations actually began with short sightseeing flights on Oahu. Later, Inter-Island Airways Ltd., as it was known then, acquired a fleet of two 8 passenger Sikorsky S-38 amphibian planes. That was followed, in 1935, by 16 passenger, Sikorsky S-43’s, to permit more traffic and inter-island mail service.

In 1941, Hawaiian’s first DC-3 Gooney Birds joined the fleet, some of which remained with the company for nearly three decades. In 1966, the company added DC-9’s interisland flights, which many of us still remember well. Those were replaced in 2001 by the current Boeing 717 fleet, also a DC-9 derivative. And those too, will soon be replaced.

The airline began scheduled trans-Pacific flights with Lockheed L-1011’s Tri-Stars starting in 1985. Those were later followed by various aircraft including DC-10’s, 767’s, and the current Airbus A332 fleet. Those to be joined next year with the first of 12 new premium-focused Hawaiian Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

Pam Am first opened Hawaii to the world.

With a global route from San Francisco to China, Pan Am simultaneously started service to Honolulu, Midway, and Wake Islands, Guam, and the Philippines. It was 1936 when the Pioneer Clipper first landed in Hawaii. The flight from the Bay Area was nearly 18 hours long! With that, Hawaii travel was born.

Later, larger Boeing Clippers joined the fleet, some of which included passenger lounges and cabins on the bottom floors, men’s and women’s restrooms, and bridal suites. During World War II, however, air travel to and within Hawaii was suspended.

Fast forward to the early 1960s, when Pan Am began direct flights from California to Hilo. It was at that point the now oversize Big Island airport received a runway long enough for jets, and a new terminal to accommodate visitors. In 1970, they started a historic twice-daily Boeing 747 service to Honolulu. Those continued until 1985 when Pan Am sold their Hawaii routes to United Airlines.

United Airlines: a Hawaii flight leader since 1947.

United began service to Hawaii with Honolulu flights starting in 1947, and Hawaii is a big part of the airline’s history ever since. They started with DC-6 Mainliner, then Stratocruiser flights from San Francisco. Did you know that in 1964, United was the first to install in-flight movies on Hawaii flights?

Starting in the 1960s, United flew DC-8 planes to Hawaii on what were and still are some of the longest flights in the United States. Those included nonstop from Chicago and New York to Honolulu, starting in 1969. Later aircraft included a range of DC-8’s, DC-10’s, plus Boeing 737, 747, 757, 767, 777, and 787.

So many aviation memories! These are just the start of how air travel transformed Hawaii.

1940 Boeing 314 Clipper Video.

Please add your memories in the comments below. Mahalo!

Revised September 21, 2023.

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191 thoughts on “Prices Went From $5,500 To $99 As Air Travel Reshaped Hawaii”

  1. I remember my first flight to Hawaii like it was yesterday, though it was 47 years ago! It was 1976, and I was 13. My dad took me for a 3 island, 7 night tour of the islands – Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii Island (though we called it the Big Island). We flew from LAX on a Western Airlines DC-10 “the only way to fly”! It was my first flight ever, and I’ve been back many times since. I even got married on Kauai 20 years later! Mahalo for the memories! 🌺

  2. My first flight was to Honolulu. Northwest Airlines, 747. Stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, in the tower. Played volleyball with Sonny Bono and others on the beach in front of the hotel while Cher laid on the beach watching. Still hard to believe.

  3. Our first visit to the islands was for our honeymoon, Feb 4-18, 1968. It was magical. We traveled to the 4 main islands. I still have receipts and this one came to $1200! We flew on Northwest Airlines. They served everyone a glass of champagne midway over the ocean. Our first stop was Hilo, Hawaii. We stayed at the brand new Naniloa Hotel. We were transported across the island to Kona on a semi private shuttle over a road that cut through Hawaii Volcanos National Park and now is covered over by lava. We were one of the first guests at the Kona Hilton now called the Royal Kona Resort.
    On Maui it was the Maui Hilton, now Maui Kaanapali Villas. It cost $14/night at these hotels! We also stayed at Kauai’s Coco Palms. Loved it!

  4. Our first trip to Maui was in 2004. We flew on Aloha Airlines; two tickets for about $500rt total, $125 each way sale. My husband’s boss allowed us to stay in his condo, at the Royal Kahana. We were hooked. We’ve been back 12 times since. We’ve also visited Oahu twice and the Big Island once. We love visiting and hope to continue, with Aloha to all.

  5. My first trip to Oahu was in 1976 and my office had a bon voyage party. It was a big deal. We flew from Sacrament to Oahu and the
    best part was when we landed and stepped out onto the tarmac and
    the beautiful warm breeze and being presented with a lei. I miss that
    welcome. I don’t remember how much the flight was. But I do know
    we had to scrimp and safe to afford it. Now we take our granddaughters and share the aloha spirit with them.

  6. My wife and I honeymooned on Maui in 1985. We flew from Oakland, Ca. through Honolulu on a World Airways 747 – $99 flights. To call it minimalist would be overstating it, but what did we care? We stayed at Kaanapali’s Maui Surf (now Westin Maui) for $115 per night. We’ve been back dozens and dozens of times over the years, never again at that price – LOL – We have tried other islands, but our hearts are on Maui.

  7. My first flight to HI was in Aug. 2005 from San Diego To Maui in. The fare $500 rt. I fell in w/ the place the moment I stepped off HA57. I’ve been coming once a year ever since & have visited every island. Aloha!

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