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What Went Wrong With All The Airlines of Hawaii

These are interesting times for all of us, which is also true for airlines. We’ve had many comments about what people are missing in Hawaii travel, including reliable flights and interisland service, including to Lanai, Molokai, and Hilo.

That reminded us about what became of all of the Hawaii-based airlines – past and present. We’re revisiting that topic today and are intentionally only including airlines that either are or were based here in Hawaii. Therefore you won’t find mention of Southwest Airlines.

We all long for things we like that are familiar and those gone by. For us, those gone by include nine airlines of Hawaii that are no longer in business, including the renowned Aloha Airlines.

Like many of you, we’ve had many personal experiences with all of these companies over the years, ranging from Princeville Airways and Aloha Airlines to Island Air, Mokulele, and Hawaiian.

Mokulele Airlines’ current problems and fixes.

The photo above is from a much better time at Mokulele and their inaugural jet flight. Their short-lived 70-passenger Embraer 170 jets were comfortable beyond compare. 

Mokulele Airlines is a recently very troubled but still active interisland airline based in Kona. They operate both scheduled and charter flights between Hawaii airports using Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft.

Many comments we’ve received attest to recent flight disruptions wherein passengers have been stranded and unable to travel as planned. The company recently held an online meeting to discuss widespread problems, including cancellations and delays. Medical personnel needed on Molokai and Lanai have been unable to attend to patients due to these issues.

Here is an example of the many comments we received:

John: “Mokulele Airlines is the worst for canceling flights (and delays). This has been their business model for almost 2 years. Regularly stranding people on the island of Molokai and other island locations for Days (not hours). This used to be a decent airline until they were handed a Monopoly in 2020 (via an acquisition of Makana Kai Air and the discontinued service by Ohana/Hawaiian Airlines). Mokulele’s fares are outrageous $109 – $124 (one way). H E L P.”

Gail: “We flew from Phoenix to Honolulu Saturday and expected to take an interisland flight to Molokai 3 hours after our mainland flight landed. The flight from HNL to Molokai canceled with no explanation, and we have been stuck here in HNL. They told us the earliest we can expect to get on a flight to Molokai is Wednesday. We are not alone. This has been occurring to many other visitors.”

The company has begun acknowledging its problems and said it would help by bringing three more 9-seat planes and one larger aircraft into its fleet over the next few months.

Mokulele began in 1994 and was founded by a Native Hawaiian woman, Rebecca “Kawehi” Inaba. In 2005 Bill Boyer acquired it, and then in 2007, it began flying in partnership with Mesa Air. In 2008, Mokulele partnered with Republic Airways, at which point it received Embraer 170 jets (pictured above). In 2009, Republic took 50% ownership of the company. Mokulele once even planned to acquire wide-body Boeing 767 planes and wanted to begin flights between Hawaii, Illinois, and London. That never happened. In 2019, Southern Airways Express purchased Mokulele Airlines.

Hawaiian Airlines: Some New and Missed Opportunities.

Hawaiian Airlines Dreamliners

Your editors have flown on Hawaiian Air hundreds of times, interisland, domestically, and internationally, and it has been mainly without any incidents. We had always counted on them locally as mainlanders do a bus or train for reliable transport. We have known many of the employees (Hawaii is, after all, a tiny place) and have had the opportunity to meet their executive team over the years. 

Starting in 2022, Hawaiian Air’s reliability dropped precipitously after many years at #1, down to #5 among major US carriers. That has been primarily due to a combination of earlier staffing issues and a closed runway at Honolulu, their main airport. ATC may play a role as well.

Hawaiian Air has been Hawaii’s bellwether since 1929 and is Hawaii’s only flag carrier. Hawaiian operates primarily out of Honolulu and Maui, its home bases, and the Big Island and Kauai.  The company flies interisland, to the U.S. mainland and Asia, American Samoa, Australia, French Polynesia, and New Zealand. It has a fleet of wide-body A330 and narrow-body A321 planes and uses Boeing 717 interisland.

Starting later this year, 10 Boeing 787 Dreamliners will start to arrive, opening many new and longer-range possibilities, including Southeast Asia and Europe. Hawaiian previously flew ATR turboprops as Ohana by Hawaiian, in conjunction with Empire Airlines, which ceased operations. Hawaiian has never incurred a fatal accident or hull loss.

Hawaiian Airlines will also begin its new service on May 20 between Honolulu and the Cook Islands.

Aloha Airlines is remembered fondly, and here’s why.

Somehow Aloha is never far from our minds. BOH editors have flown on Aloha Airlines countless times. We remember using their coupon books, also flying with many family members and friends, and sometimes paying as little as $29 per flight. We still recall when we could arrive at the airport 10 minutes before a flight and walk right onto the plane. Those were the days!

Aloha Airlines began its illustrious journey in 1946 and remained in business for 62 years until 2008. The Aloha brand was among the most highly regarded here in Hawaii, and residents considered it “the people’s choice” interisland carrier for more than six decades.

Aloha started as Trans-Pacific Airlines, flying their one DC-3. They would go on to fly DC-3 until 1961. Aloha changed aircraft types multiple times in the sixties before settling in with its familiar Sunbird, Boeing 737-200 fleet. They also tried many other planes, including DC-10 widebodies and Boeing 737-800 ETOPS, and operated routes to places as far as the mainland, Guam, American Samoa, Christmas Island, and Rarotonga.

After suffering years of financial woes, Aloha went bankrupt amid many controversies and ceased operations. Subsequently, Mesa attempted to acquire the Aloha brand for its never-in-favor Go! Airlines. A court ruling prevented that, and the brand, other than as a cargo carrier, ceased. Read RIP Aloha Airlines. In that article, we interestingly predicted Southwest interisland service back almost a decade before it actually began.

It was in 1988 that Aloha flight 243 suffered the infamous explosive decompression yet managed to land safely on Maui. One of their flight attendants died when she was ejected from the plane, and, in addition, 65 more who were on the flight were injured. At the time, that plane had more than 90,000 cycles (flights), which was more than twice the number of take-offs and landings for which it had been designed.

Discovery Airlines was a blip in Hawaii travel.

Discovery Airways Hawaii

Discovery Airlines operated interisland briefly, for just three months in 1990, and flew the unusual 4-engine BAE 146 jet aircraft. Their demise was associated with having foreign ownership beyond what was dictated by law.

FlyHawaii Airlines never got off the ground.

FlyHawaii ATR72

FlyHawaii was an airline that never was. It was conceived of by James Delano of Hawaii’s Lion Coffee fame and was to fly ATR 72 planes (newer variant shown) starting in late 2005. Delano wanted to model it after Southwest and JetBlue by offering frequent flights and relying on online reservations. They had planned to charge $50 per flight. When Go! Airlines began operations, and FlyHawaii abruptly terminated its plans.

Go! Airlines was better gone.

We only flew on Go! a few times, which was uncomfortable at multiple levels, including both the experience and the company. That’s a brand that wasn’t ever much missed here in Hawaii. 

Go! Airlines (also known as Go!Mokulele for a period – see photo) flew inter-island using a less-than-comfortable fleet of CRJ 200 jets operated courtesy of Mesa Airlines. They stopped flying in 2014 after a challenging history that included the two Go! Airlines pilots who fell asleep on the infamous flight to Hilo from Honolulu. They then continued some 25 miles past their intended airport until air traffic control could awaken them. Read about that incident here.

Island Air suffered from reliability issues.

Island Air

Alas, another sad story. We loved Island Air and how they treated us as passengers. On the other hand, we had terrible delays on Island Air, and missed connections were always a concern. Towards the end, we avoided them simply for reasons of reliability. 

Island Air was a highly regarded Hawaii airline that flew Bombardier Dash 8 aircraft and tried moving to the newer Bombardier Q400. It began in 1980 as Princeville Airways and BOH editor Jeff got to fly with them when they first started. The company later expanded to serve most Hawaii airports before being sold and becoming Island Air. It was sold two additional times, first in 2003 to Gavarnie Holdings and later to Lanai billionaire Larry Ellison, who wanted it to expand flights to Lanai island. Ellison sold it to one more time in 2016, which was followed soon thereafter by the termination of Island Air flights.

Mahalo Air made it four years.

Mahalo Air Hawaii

Short-lived Mahalo Air only flew interisland from 1993 to 1997. After acquiring another flight certificate, they started flights on Fokker F27 turboprop planes operated by Empire Airlines (funny coincidence with Go!) and started their own flights using ATR 42 turboprops. Multiple problems plagued Mahalo, and they stopped operations in 1994 after filing for bankruptcy.

Makani Kai Air merged with Mokulele.

Makani Kai Air

Makana Kai Air flew between Honolulu and both Hoolehua and Kalaupapa (Molokai), Kahului, and Princeville. They also flew between Kahului and Kona after starting operations in 1998. They were known for flat rate fares.

Their fleet consisted of Cessna 208 Grand Caravans. In 2013, they suffered from an engine failure on takeoff from Kalaupapa and ditched into the ocean. All of the 10 passengers onboard exited safely, although one person died subsequently.

Makani Kai Air merged with Mokulele in 2020, eliminating many of its routes.

Mid Pacific Air had 7 good years.

Mid Pacific Air Hawaii

Mid Pacific Air flew interisland between 1981-1988 using NAMC YS-11 turboprops and Fokker F28 jet planes.

They were a low-cost airline with cargo and 80 passenger flights daily, flying between Honolulu, Kauai, Kona, and Maui.

Pacific Wings was a charter airline.

Pacific Wings Hawaii

BOH editor Jeff once had to charter a Pacific Wings plane to pick up his family on Lanai after they were stranded by another airline. 

Pacific Wings was a charter company and an interisland carrier based at Kahului, Maui. They started flying scheduled inter-island flights in 2007 and ceased operations in 2013. They flew Cessna 8-seat Grand Caravans between Honolulu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and West Maui. They featured $49 fares for every seat.

The airline began as a charter operator in the 70s as Air Nevada and, in 1998, became Pacific Wings. In 2009, the troubled airline temporarily suspended flights after a confrontation allegedly occurred between the airline’s employees and airport police attempting to deliver a citation to the airline’s president. That was regarding a fuel spill and allegedly improper airport fuel storage. When the company resumed flights shortly after that, it cut service to all but three routes and increased prices.

Royal Hawaiian Air Service was better flight-seeing.

Royal Hawaiian Air

Rob flew them in 1980 and reported it was incredible because of how low they flew. He says these are flights you wouldn’t sleep through because of the view. He recalls flying at altitudes of less than 1,000 feet. 

Royal Hawaiian Air Service (RHAS) flew between Kauai, Lanai, Maui, Molokai, and Oahu. The company started in 1963 as Hawaii Wings, an air tour operator, then RHAS from 1965 to 1986. They operated Cessna 402 aircraft, which flew very low to provide flight-seeing as part of the transportation. They also flew to less-served Hawaii airports, including Kaanapali, Princeville, Port Allen, Hana, and Upolu (Big Island).

Tropic Airlines-Air Molokai

We didn’t recall this (hat tip to a previous commenter). They appear to have operated from 1967 to 1985. The main thing we found was the history of a crash of a 402B on Molokai due to an airframe failure on takeoff.

We look forward to your comments! Aloha.

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44 thoughts on “What Went Wrong With All The Airlines of Hawaii”

  1. Mokulele is the worst airline in existence. Since they became a monopoly on flights to Moloka’i their service levels have plummeted while prices have more than doubled. The wiki-wiki drivers at HNL just laugh when they hear you are going to Mokulele because everyone knows they are so unreliable, regularly stranding passengers for hours if not days. Earlier this year they left my 85 year old mother sitting in the MKK airport for 4 hours with not one update, no water, nothing. I’ve missed six flights to the mainland because of their incompetence. They literally do not care about their customers at all. They try to blame the weather, but before Mokulele became a monopoly, there were never delays or cancelations like there are now.

  2. We used to fly a prop plane from Honolulu to a small airport in West Maui as it was only
    6 minutes drive to our place in Honokawai. What was the name of that small airline?

    1. It was probably Royal Hawaiian Air Service (RHAS). They flew 9 passenger Cessna 402s to Kaanapali. They also flew DHC-6 Twin Otters in the later years.

      They closed down when Kaanapali Airport was closed. The closure was due to a the construction of a hotel.

      Search for Abandoned and Little Known Airfields for a history of the airport, along with histories of other abandoned airports in Hawaii and the USA.

  3. A great review of the airlines serving Hawaii, my wife and I was on the last of Aloha airlines and while on Maui we had to purchase a ticket on American Airlines to get back home to Las Vegas. remember that time very explicit as it realyy cost us several dollars more to get a ticket on AA. Too bad it’s so difficult for the airlines to make it in Hawaii.
    Charles & Doe W
    Las Vegas NV

  4. Don’t listen to the people saying the airlines stopped the super ferry. The super ferry was mismanaged, they broke environmental laws to try and get established and failed on their own. The environmentalists were quite correct btw. One of the many concerns was the effect on traffic. Can you imagine the traffic on Kauai if boatloads of cars were dumped on the island everyday? You think it’s bad now? Auwe.

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    1. Thank you for clarifying the truth of the matter. Linda Lingle (ex HI governor, (R)) skirted the mandatory environmental impact studies and pushed the ferry through. Good that it was stopped. We don’t need no stinkin’ high speed ferries anyway- regular ones will do just fine. Lots of baby whales thank you!

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  5. Hawaiian and Aloha both survived the deregulation era for a long time. After 1978 fare wars by airlines operating inter island at a loss to try and get established was the norm. Hawaiian did not “put Aloha out of business” they both competed vigorously for as long as they could. HA was the survivor for many reasons. They made some crucial and gutsy decisions that paid off. Not the least being investments in the right A/C and International expansion. Their unions also worked well with management to help facilitate their survival.

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  6. Mahalo BOH for another great overview of airlines in Hawaii. IMHO, Aloha was a victim of their own success with great service and reliability (1980s-2000s) & pioneering 737 flights to the Mainland. Unfortunately the 737-700s were too small to be profitable and Aloha failed to upgrade its interisland fleet like Hawaiian. Island Air lost their way when they upgraded to ATR72sand then Q400s. Their bread and butter was Lanai/Molokai/Kapalua, the latter route I flew a number of times. It’s unfortunate that Ohana didn’t make it as they had the smaller ATR42s and many of the same routes as Island Air. Hard to believe places like Kapalua had many flights a day on Island Air & Hawaiian or Island Air & Mahalo but now have very little service.

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  7. In the ’80s through the early ’90s, Molokai did have a lot of air service. Between Hawaiian’s DHC7s, Royal Hawaiian and Reeves’ C402s, and Princeville’s DHC6s, there really was a lot of capacity between Molokai and the rest of the State. The crash near Halawa Valley by a Princeville DHC6 started the decline of capacity.
    Hawaiian phasing out their DHC7 fleet and service to Kapalua was a significant blow to capacity as well. Flying DC9-50s into Molokai and Lanai was somewhat terrifying.
    After Air Molokai went under due to loss of their hangar space in Honolulu, Panorama Air Tour started flying to Molokai with their PA31s for a short time. There was a general collapse of the fixed-wing air tour business after a couple of accidents.

  8. Corporate greed is the cause of the demise of Hawaii’s airlines, along with their starting pricing-wars to create monopolies to cement increased profits to feed this greed. Also, my mother-in-law worked for Royal Hawaiian for 21 years (yes, 21 years), from the day they opened until they day they closed; and her only notice in 1986 that Royal was closing down, and that her employment was being terminated, was a note: “Don’t come into work tomorrow”. Now that’s corporate gratitude for you. Retirement plan? Right. :-0. By the way, The Super Ferry has no chance here in Hawaii as the airline lobbyists make sure that it won’t get State approvals…ever.

  9. Most issues were poor management, funding, and the need for highly skilled employees (Pilots & mechanics). Most of the other employees were very good.
    Off Island mechanical work/certification cost to much.

  10. You forgot Air Hawaii who flew Cessna 404 Titans. They went bankrupt in 1982. You also forgot Reeves Air which flew in the 80s using Cessna 402a and 402b aircraft. I flew for both of those carriers and had the privilege of flying news crews over Kilauea volcano with Reeves Air when it started the eruption that continues to this day.

  11. I enjoyed remembering the different airlines in your article;the time they were around,the eras -I think that’s why I am now loyal to Hawaiian,experiencing all these airlines come and go,

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  12. Your comment regarding Aloha Air: “…as little as $29 per flight. We still recall when we could arrive at the airport 10 minutes before a flight and walk right onto the plane. Those were the days!” reminds me also of boarding the plane right from the tarmac. I long for those days and remember them fondly (especially after we found out on our last trip, the night before we left Lihue, our rental car couldn’t be returned until 8am and our flight boarded before that).

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  13. I Loved Aloha Airlines while I lived in Hawaii, used it to island hop all the time for weekend adventures away from Maui.

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  14. Every one of these defunct “airlines” (a misnomer in some cases) had similar (the same?) problems — save Aloha — to wit:

    1. Most were not ready for prime-time (equipment, infrastructure,customer service, ticketing, baggage xfer, etc.) and were seen by some operators as a “quick-buck” scheme — for themselves.
    2. Below average pilot skill levels reflected in experience/hiring/training, same for maintenance troops and record keeping — basically low salaries across the board (except for the “front office” in some cases)
    3. Lesser quality and older aircraft (in some cases — just plain (plain?) Old which creates all kine’ other problems — you really do get what you pay for..

    2
  15. What I miss most (since we will always have airlines) is the doomed, persecuted Interisland Ferry.
    Imagine, bringing your car to go see auntie on the outer island rather than the hassle of finding a rental!

    An island community needs ferries!

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