Friday, May 31, 2019

New choices for interisland air travel

From the Star-Advertiser May 28, 2019.

On the mainland, it’s national news that Southwest Airlines has entered the Hawaii market. The Dallas-based carrier is one of the largest low-cost airlines in the country. It joined United, Delta and American in March with multiple daily flights from California. 

Using 175-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft, Southwest is flying interisland to Oahu, Maui and Kona — it’s offering 16 daily flights or 1,800 seats. And it plans to go to Hilo and Kauai soon, which would add lots more seats.

There is no question that this will have a big effect on Hawaiian Airlines. It’s likely to bring lower fares, and given that Southwest doesn’t charge for bags, flight changes or on-board Internet, it will mean new marketing challenges for Hawaiian.

Now that Southwest is on the scene, it’s time to take a hard look at the future of our interisland air travel. Hawaiian’s fares have seemed way too steep for half-hour no-frills flights. Has it been funding its global expansion out of these interisland fares?

Filling the planes to the last tiny seat, charging big bucks for baggage and offering only the most bare-bones beverage service, Hawaiian has been air miles away from providing an enjoyable interisland travel experience.

Bare-bones travel is hardly appropriate for a state that is dependent on selling tourism, much less for local people who must rely on interisland air travel to get to see their families, friends, colleagues and customers, the fabric of our statewide community. For the last few years, many local people have not been able to afford the fares, and that’s regrettable.

That, on top of high-stress, hour-long waits on the TSA lines, with early closings at the gates. That’s nice for its international on-time record, but Hawaiian has sold my seats out more than once after inordinate delays by TSA — even when my companions told them I’d called from the line and would be there in moments. Its answer: That’s my problem; get to the airport two or three hours earlier. Really? On an interisland flight?

That’s no solution. How about trying to make things easier for us, not harder? There’s a serious attitudinal issue here. While Hawaiian’s fares have inexorably increased over recent years, my interisland travel experience has noticeably declined. Seems to me the now-defunct Aloha Airlines was more caring of my comfort, and for that matter, so was Hawaiian when it had to compete.

And if we could only have the Superferry, or any ferry, back again to provide alternative choices for interisland travelers. What we have had instead is an entrenched monopoly with a lack of real options to help us get around the state. The result has been right out of an economics textbook.

But let’s not dwell on nostalgia. Let’s give a big “E komo mai” to Southwest. The sooner it can expand into full service among the islands, the better for all of us. Interisland travelers need to be discerning consumers to rediscover the joys and benefits of this long-awaited, sorely missed competition.

After all, as interisland travel goes, so goes our state.

Jay Fidell, of Nuuanu, is a retired attorney and CEO of ThinkTech Hawaii, a digital media nonprofit.

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