POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 31, 2012
Hawaiian Airlines' inaugural flight to Sapporo, Japan, on Tuesday came at the right time for the Takahashi family.
Aaron and his wife, Tomoko, wanted to bring their 5-month-old son, Hokuto, back to the island of Hokkaido to meet Tomoko's family for the first time, but the prospect of flying to Narita International Airport and then catching a connecting flight with a young child seemed daunting.
So they took advantage of the first nonstop service between Hawaii and Sapporo since 2003.
The new route is Hawaiian's fourth to Japan since November 2010.
"A direct flight is huge," said Aaron Takahashi, who was born and raised in Mililani and works in the food and beverage department at Disney's Aulani resort at Ko Olina. "My wife is from the Hokkaido area. It's so convenient for us. We used to have to go to Narita, then transfer to Haneda (International Airport in downtown Tokyo) and then take another domestic plane to Hokkaido. Now it's a direct flight. With a baby it's a huge help."
Hawaiian took just 64 passengers — mostly airline personnel, media and travel operators — on the inaugural 10-hour flight to Sapporo, which is Japan's fifth-largest city with 1.9 million people and located on the country's northernmost island. The airline will fly the route three days a week using a 264-seat Boeing 767.
"Hokkaido is somewhat isolated from some of the other connecting points in Tokyo or Osaka, so we think there's some demand that hasn't been satisfied in recent years because it's difficult train travel or air travel to Tokyo to get a connecting flight," Hawaiian Airlines Chief Commercial Officer Peter Ingram said. "We think that by adding nonstop service we'll see really good demand for this market. It's been reflected in the advance bookings, which have come in really strong for us."
Keiichi Tsujino, president of Japanese tour operator JTB Hawaii Inc., said before boarding Tuesday's inaugural flight that he thinks the service will be well received in Sapporo.
"I think there will be good demand, especially in the winter when it's cold and they want to go to a warm place," he said.
Service from Sapporo to Hawaii is expected to generate $61 million in annual visitor spending, $6.7 million in state taxes and add 41,000 air seats, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
That's welcome news for the HTA in its bid to reach a goal of 2 million Japanese visitors in 2016. Hawaii's peak from Japan was 2.2 million in 1997, but in recent years the number has fallen to less than 1.5 million. Through the first nine months of this year, visitor arrivals from Japan are up 15.9 percent to 1.1 million.
"Hawaiian's entry into the Hokkaido market provides an additional port of departure from Japan, and more ports of departure from Japan gets into our strategic priority of expanding service from Japan," HTA CEO Mike McCartney said. "This is a significant move forward."
McCartney said he'd like to see Hawaiian or another carrier also add service from Sendai, Niigata and Hiroshima — all cities that previously offered nonstop service to Hawaii.