The Hawaii Express' David Neeleman Eyes New Hawaii Flights

Kaput Hawaii Express Backer Eyes New Hawaii Flights

David Neeleman is a name very familiar to Hawaii and to travel aficionados too. He’s a successful serial airline entrepreneur who was very closely associated with the starting of Hawaii Express Airlines in the early 1980s. Since then, David Neeleman has launched JetBlue, WestJet, Breeze Airways, and Azul Brazilian Airlines.

Is David Neeleman’s latest Breeze Airways following in the footsteps of his other airlines, including The Hawaii Express? This could be the next big surprise in Hawaii aviation.

Breeze Airways flights to Hawaii?

Not as far-fetched as it may sound, Hawaii has never been far from the travel aspirations of Neeleman. Not only does JetBlue plan to fly to Hawaii, but Breeze may be in hot pursuit of the same goal.

Breeze, like JetBlue, is in the midst of rapid expansion. Breeze Airways has been flying for less than two years. Since startup, it went from just 16 eastern US destinations to have an extensive network in 20 states and 35 cities, from the east coast to the west coast.

Breeze’s stock in trade is ultra-low-cost travel, although they are now diversifying and moving in on a unique luxury-on-the-cheap paradigm that could well be a winner for Hawaii travel.

Breeze’s fleet is based on new Airbus A220 aircraft.

The company has 120 purchases and 40 options for these small but mighty planes. Of the 126 seats onboard each aircraft, 36 are its take-on first class with 2×2 seating, while 90 seats are a combination of regular economy and very much extra legroom.

This aircraft family is, by the way, one of the most likely contenders to replace Hawaiian Airlines 717 interisland fleet, which is aged and will need replacement very soon. The other option for Hawaiian is the Embraer E-Jet family.

The Canadian-made Airbus A220 in 2019 received ETOPS-180 from Transport Canada. The PW1500G engines that power the plane also received 180-minute ETOPS from the FAA, although, to our knowledge, the final approval for the aircraft is still pending. ETOPS, in part, opens routes that include Hawaii to Breeze and other overwater routes. The company also said they are “In the process with the FAA of getting flag ops added.” That certification means the airline can fly outside the 48 states to Hawaii, Alaska, and internationally.

The plane has the capabilities of a fantastic range of 3,798 miles, or 7 1/2 hours, which means that the Hawaiian Islands are accessible from far beyond the west coast’s approximately 2500-mile distance. The A220 planes were originally the Bombardier C Series, which was 50% acquired by Airbus in 2018. The plane has been flying distances longer than the west coast to Hawaii for several years.

Breeze Airways is not to be overlooked.

David Neeleman believes, and we concur, that there will be an ever-increasing demand for premium leisure travel. His fleet of Airbus A220 planes is premium-heavy, and the airline has dedicated a significant portion of the aircraft to just that.

We aren’t alone in that thinking, as virtually every airline, other than Southwest, is of the same mindset regarding premium. You see that in the true premium economy offerings to Hawaii from American, Delta, and United Airlines. We’re yet to see what Alaska and Hawaii do in that regard, but respond, they will.

Pay an extra 50 bucks for first class, we think people will do that. – Breeze Founder & CEO David Neeleman

We don’t know the airfare prices should Breeze embark on Hawaii flights. But Neeleman expects the costs and the difference between the cheapest and most expensive offerings to remain low. The company’s COO said that at this point, “It is just a pricing exercise” to find the optimal costs.

Back to Hawaii Express and David Neeleman.

Neeleman had a fascinating and pivotal role in the startup of Hawaii Express. In his 20’s, he owned a small home-based Salt Lake City travel company. That venture proliferated and was successful enough for him to buy huge blocks of seats on The Hawaii Express 747 flights from Los Angeles to Honolulu. His role was essential in the initial success the airline was able to achieve.

The company began with a single Boeing 747 flying from Los Angeles. It then acquired two DC-10 planes. The Hawaii Express started just as the airline market opened to new players. In addition to Pan Am Hawaii flights, other airlines entered the Hawaii flight market in the 1980’s like Braniff, Continental, Northwest Orient, TWA, and United Airlines (the only airline still flying). American Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines (trans-Pacific) came later. In perfectly synchronous timing with the expanding Hawaii travel market, wide-body jets arrived and put the kibosh on legacy Boeing 707 and DC-8 flights to the islands. Suddenly, Boeing 747 and DC-10 flights to Hawaii were all the rage.

The actual founder of The Hawaii Express was Michael Hartley. The Hawaii-based entrepreneur began Hawaii interisland flights earlier as Island Pacific Airlines, which operated Cessna planes. That operation later became part of Air Hawaii. Then in 1981, taking advantage of airline deregulation, he started The Hawaii Express on the premise of cheap flights to Hawaii.

Neeleman entered a fundamental role with the airline, and we’ll refer to his part as being close to co-founder. He is a long-time Hawaii aficionado who, at that time, maintained a condo here and was determined to add cheap flights to Hawaii to his arsenal. His company was called Independent Flight Services, and it sold bulk seats on The Hawaii Express. Those seats were purchased from the airline and provided much of the money needed for its operations. He then resold those seats through his travel agency.

After just over one year, The Hawaii Express was no more.

What happened is that the two most prominent players on Hawaii routes at the time, United Airlines and Western Airlines, started a never ending fare war to put The Hawaii Express out of business. That seemed prudent to them since their profits were quickly being skimmed by the little known outsider operations of Hartman and Neeleman.

The Hawaii Express went through bankruptcy. As a result, so did David Neeleman’s closely connected company since he didn’t have the money to repay customers who had purchased Hawaii flights. Sadly, Neeleman said that he almost saved The Hawaii Express, saying, “If I only had several thousand dollars more, I could have saved the company.” Neeleman was still less than 25 years old at the time.

After the pain associated with The Hawaii Express, Neeleman temporarily got out of the airline business, vowing never to return. He went to work in retail for a short time until his father introduced him to June Morris, owner of a large travel agency in Salt Lake City. Together the two launched Morris Air, which was later purchased by Southwest Airlines. It is reported that he and Southwest’s Herb Kelleher became good friends. Despite that friendship, Southwest was not a good fit for Neeleman, and he left soon after that to launch Canada’s very successful WestJet Airlines. WestJet used many things Neeleman learned from his Morris Air and Southwest experiences. Then in 2001, Neeleman launched JetBlue, and later, in 2008, Azul Brazilian Airlines.

Neeleman has said that The Hawaii Express was a key learning experience for him, whose demise was blamed on a lack of capital. In contrast, JetBlue was highly capitalized before it launched. He also learned from the divisive fare war that resulted in The Hawaii Express’ demise.

The Hawaii Express $99 tickets are over $300 in today’s dollars.

It’s fascinating that The Hawaii Express seats were sold out of Salt Lake City but were for flights from Los Angeles. As a result, many Hawaii travelers would drive to LA to take advantage of the super-cheap $99 flights. During his first year selling The Hawaii Express tickets, David employed twenty people and did $8M in flight sales ($25 million in today’s money).

If Breeze comes to Hawaii, expect unique classes of service.

Breeze calls it “Nice, Nicer, and Nicest.” Cute. That means that nice is no extras, while nicer includes checked luggage, and nicest is their first class with generous legroom, bigger seats, checked bags, drinks, and snacks. The company doesn’t offer meal service in any class now but plans to add that in the future. First class passengers get premium snacks included, which are available for sale in the rest of the plane.

Breeze also provides free family seating, and you can cancel right up to minutes before flight time with no change/cancellation fees.

In their first class, “The Nicest,” wider seats on Breeze feature a footrest and a 39″ pitch. Not only that, but the extra legroom seats will appeal to many since they have a pitch of 49″. “Nicer” seats are 33″ pitch, and regular seats are 30-31″ pitch.

We are pleased to report that Breeze aircraft have a mobility-impaired restroom. That is no longer always the case.

WiFi is installed or coming. It was due to be completed in December, but we couldn’t confirm that it had occurred. When it does, it will be free in first class and may or may not be free for the remaining seats.

Breeze Airways to Hawaii

Breeze flies to focus cities, including Hartford, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Phoenix, and recently, inland Southern California’s San Bernardino. Their primary focus, however, is on secondary cities. One of the key benefits of Breeze flying out of smaller airports is that it can significantly expedite everything from parking to check-in and departure.

Lie-flat on Breeze?

Leave it to Neeleman to be creative with his airlines. Neeleman said he also has in mind adding lie-flat seats on Breeze if and when that is appropriate. He said that the planes are prepared for converting the 36 first class seats to 21 lie-flat seats, which can be done in a couple of days if needed.

Remember that what Breeze calls first class or “The Nicest” certainly isn’t a true first class in any sense. It is a premium economy offering that remains budget in terms of cost and service. The same can be said, more or less, for most domestic first class, however.

The Breeze experience.

We haven’t personally flown on a Breeze A220 yet, have you? We can report that friends who have just loved it. They said that the first class seats on Breeze are as good as any domestic offering, except, of course, for lie-flat. The service component, however, was not as good as other options.

Read: Hawaii-Based Airlines, Then and Now.

Where would a Breeze Hawaii flight start from?

This is purely speculative, but San Beernardino is our thought. Breeze currently flies from San Bernardino nonstop to Las Vegas with one-stop service to Hartford. Hawaii seems to be a great fit from both the east coast and from LasVegas/San Bernardino. Breeze charges about half what other airlines charge on the Harford to west coast route.


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14 thoughts on “Kaput Hawaii Express Backer Eyes New Hawaii Flights”

  1. The A220 series are Regional Jets. I do not fly Regional Jets on principle. Same as I would not fly DC10’s.

    I wish there was a B717 Neo on the cards but I think the 737 family is as small as Boeing wants to go.

  2. Breeze is a horrible company with extremely poor Ethics of caring for its employees… even making them temporary and on contract. I wouldn’t fly them if it were free! They’d need to care for their people and support economies and family’s before I’d ever consider even going to their website! Do a little digging and see what I mean

  3. In the section of the story “After just over one year, The Hawaii Express was no more” there is a significant error in the third paragraph:

    “Despite that friendship, Southwest was not a good fit for Keeleher, and he left soon after that to launch Canada’s very successful WestJet”. I beg to differ beyond the mis-spelling of Herb’s last name (Kelleher, not Keeleher). Herb Kelleher steered Southwest to incredible success until his retirement. Mr. Neeleman went on to found Westjet, also an excellent airline.

    Anyway, Herb would have enjoyed taking credit for Westjet, too!!!

    Other than that, an excellent job of capturing a bit of aviation history. Mr. Neeleman reminds me of Freddie Laker. Thanks!!!

    1. Hi Peter.

      Thanks. Corrected. It is Neeleman that wasn’t a good fit for Southwest. It was a fun piece to write.


  4. The “Flying Pineapple!” I worked at Chiat/Day who had the Pineapple Express advertising account when the ad campaign was conceived. Great memories. Fun flights.

  5. I would be very glad to have another option when flying from here in Las Vegas to Hawaii! I have flown both Hawaiian and Southwest many times. Both have their pluses and minuses. To have another option, especially for a more comfortable seat without a huge up charge or usage of points, would be great!
    Looking forward to seeing the progress of this airline and their ideas!

  6. Additional comment…they don’t provide food in their “First Class” aka “Nicest”…it is not first class standards, it is extra legroom with ULCC standards, so you are paying an extra $50 for seats that they are marketing hype as “first class” but actually are economy plus. They could call it “cramped, marginal, and ok” class if they wanted to be accurate, but doesn’t sell as well. Sort of like SWA “Business Select”–not business class, you just get to line up and pick a seat before others and pay for that, all same seats, no service difference, just marketing hype to upsell.

  7. Aircraft manufacturers like to show performance in a vacuum, meaning maximum range is in ideal conditions, i.e. full fuel and light on everything else (including passengers and cargo) so the range is ferry with no fuel reserve. Put passengers, and cargo (flights to Hawaii, or anywhere for that matter but definitely Hawaii carry other cargo for revenue as well as passengers) on the plane and you have to reduce fuel weight and now it can’t make it to Hawaii. Additionally it needs significant fuel reserves so the range is misleading. Pineapple express went bankrupt during less competitive times (lack of capital read they couldn’t afford to keep losing money). Grain of salt on this story….

  8. Pleased to see that another airlines is entering the mix. Our daughter lives in Kapolei, and the last time we visited we flew Southwest from Las Vegas. Even though we usually have preferential seating as handicapped, it was still cramped and uncomfortable. Would I pay $50 extra for Breeze’s first class – in a heartbeat! And flying out of San Bernadino is a no-brainer as well, especially if the proposed “bullet” train from Vegas to L.A. becomes a reality. Looking forward to seeing Hawaii again. Mahalo and Aloha from the 9th Island!

  9. I hope it happens. Having a little more comfort on long fights is great. Hopefully they have movies.

    I flew Midwest Express a few times from San Francisco to the east coast. All seats were first class. The Food a free drinks were outstanding! Hot chocolate chip cookies. Along with the outstanding crew. To bad they got bought out!

  10. Thank you for the always informative reporting on The Beat of Hawaii! My husband and I have been travelling yearly to Maui for several years now and for many of those years we flew direct from Bellingham, WA to Maui on Alaska Airlines until they sadly discontinued the route. Every year since we have been hoping an airline would pick this route back up-maybe Mr Neeleman would consider flying Breeze to Hawaii from there-we’d be first in line!

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