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

  1. Our first flight to Hawaii was more recent, in May 2022.

    We flew on Alaska Air from ORD to HNL. It was part of a package that included airfare, 7 nights at the Waikiki Resort Hotel & a rental car, & the total price was about $2700.00 with taxes & fees. I think the airfare part of that was about $1100.00 for the 2 of us.

    We had wanted to visit Hawaii for some time but it seemed cost-prohibitive. Then I found a travel site affiliated with AAFES, & on a lark searched some vacation packages. Finding this we decided to go for it, & the trip was wonderful!

  2. 1st time over was in ’54 on the S.S. Lurline. What a Great trip for a 7 year old boy. The 2nd was 2 years later on a NWA DC-6 after Dad was out of the Army. The pilots invited me into the cockpit for about an hour. Right then, I decided that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So between my years flying in the USN, two airlines and being HNL based for years, I’ve made literally 100’s of trips in/out of “Paradise”.

    In the ’50s, Grandpa played checkers with his local buddies at Kuhio Beach, swapping sea stories and lies with them. Mom met Duke Kahanamoku and got a few “surfing lessons” from his “Waikiki Beach Boys”.

    Great times. I still miss the “old Waikiki” of the ’50s and ’60s …

  3. On my wall I have two very nice black and white pictures of the “Hawaii Clipper’s” first flight out of Pearl Harbor. These were taken by Tai Sing Loo who photographed many events at Pearl Harbor and around Hawaii. I got them from my uncle who got them from my grandfather who lived in Aiea Heights.

    One is of the plane accelerating on the water, the other is of the plane moored to the dock and draped with leis. A young girl also covered in leis is sitting on the nose with “Hawaii Clipper” clearly visible below her.

    The newspaper article taped to the back of the picture states that the flight left San Francisco on it’s way to Honolulu on November 22, 1935. It arrived in Hawaii the next day, November 23, 1935.

  4. Dec 1975 and I had just turned 18. I came over by myself and received the flight and stay in kauai at coco palms as a Xmas gift from the firm I worked for. What a sweet gift! I instantly fell in love with the islands and have been coming back at least once a year, and sometimes 3x/year to all the different islands for the past 49 years!

  5. My first trip to Honolulu was not for pleasure. I was in the Navy and flew on a chartered flight from Travis AFB in California. The flight had its first stop in Honolulu. This was in January 1970 and we were dressed in winter wool uniforms. While the stop was brief, I thought this was a special place and was determined to come back some day. The flight left Honolulu and next landed on Wake Island and then on to my stop in Yokota AFB in Japan. I have been fortunate to have been able to return to the islands twelve times since. Aloha.

  6. Departed pdx in 1969 on a Pan Am DC-8. Went to Oahu and stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Village. Trails with live parrots and little break louge spots on the way to the lagoon. Fresh leis on your pillows every morning you came back to the hotel. Real puka necklaces sold outside the hotel by real native Hawaiians that made them by hand in front of you. Displays of black carved lava statues with gem eyeballs for only 2.75 cents. Homemade french crepes sold with fresh strawberries or pineapple and a ton of whip creme for about 5 bucks in the ala moana shopping center upper floor. My question is really where did that kind of culture dissappear to. Sorry it’s gone.
    So eh eh . In other words don’t act hawaiian when your really not.

  7. My Dad, Charles Barnard, was a Captain for United, retiring in 1981. He was on a layover in Honolulu when I was born in 1951. He met my Mom on her first flight as a stewardess on a DC-3. He flew everything between a DC-3 & a 747. Interestingly, his son retired as a Captain for Delta in 2018 & his grandson now flies for United Express.

  8. My first trip to Hawaii was on a Pan Am 747 and a total blast. It was like a party from the moment we got up to altitude. The stews were glamorous and very, very friendly. Most everyone who could drink, was smashed by the time we landed. We deplaned using a large stairway and a few folks stumbled down. At the end of the stairway we were met by beautiful hula dancers and we all got leid. We stayed at the Hilton Kuilima (now Turtle Bay) and they were filming a game show at the hotel where you basically grabbed money and it was hosted by Bob Eubanks. I have returned several times since, but it was a magical time which I will always remember.

  9. My first flight to Hawaii was in 1973 with my parents and younger sister. I’ll never forget being greeted at the airport with fresh leis placed around our necks and the sweet scent of plumeria blossoms in the air. I was so enthralled by the islands that my sister and I moved there during the summer of 1978 with $1,000 in our pockets and a week’s reservations at the Lahainaluna motel. We both found jobs and a place to live within that first week. I ended up staying for almost 8 years before moving back to the mainland. My sister stayed for only 6 months because she wanted to get her degree from the University of Texas. Living on Maui changed my life and my outook on life in a positive way forever.


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