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United, Korean Air reducing Hawaii service as virus worries mount

News that United Airlines, Hawaii’s largest domestic carrier, plans to temporarily cut service to the islands was the latest coronavirus-related blow to the state’s tourism economy.

United announced plans Wednesday to cut its domestic service by 10% and its international service by 20% starting in April.

United declined to provide further details now about how the cutbacks, which will be made public March 7, will affect Hawaii.

The airline has limited international service here. But based on past figures a 10% cut to Hawaii’s domestic service could average about 23,000 fewer seats a month.

Korean Air’s website also said Wednesday that it is making reductions to its Honolulu- Incheon serv­ice. It plans to suspend its KE051/052 serv­ice from March 2 to March 28. It also has reduced its KE053/054 flights to four times a week from March 9 to April 25.

Wednesday’s reductions follow Hawaiian Airlines’ Feb. 26 announcement that it would temporarily suspend its five-times-weekly nonstop service between Honolulu’s Daniel K. Ino­uye International Airport and Incheon International Airport, beginning March 2 through April 30, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in South Korea.

And if that weren’t enough of a sign that demand for Hawaii flights is down, a plethora of airline sales, including $99 flights between Hawaii and the mainland, also are beginning to hit the market. One can predict that spring travel to Hawaii will be on sale in response to increased capacity that was already in the market prior to the coronavirus as well as flight cancellations and downward booking trends.

Ellen Durgin, a repeat visitor from Huntsville, Ala., said Tuesday that she’s seen a shift in travel perceptions in the month that she’s been on Oahu.

“Up until about three days ago, it was busy. Then, we noticed a major difference. Trump (hotel) was empty and so was Waikiki beach — it felt like it was mine,” Durgin said. “There is definitely rising concern on the mainland. We were already here when our kids warned us to come on home. They were worried about the airport.”

Peter Tarlow, founder and president of Tourism &More Inc., said the U.S. isn’t suffering from as many coronavirus-related travel impacts as the rest of the world. Tarlow, a world renowned tourism security expert, said he knows of a Hyatt in Berlin that went from having 500 rooms occupied to about 20 after the ITB Berlin travel trade show was canceled. Also, Milan already has lost well over $5 billion in the wake of festival cancellations, he said.

Tarlow said Hawaii’s visitor industry could face special challenges related to its status as a long-haul destination and its dependence on Asia, especially Japan.

“People are afraid of flying right now; that’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s costing the airlines a lot of money to run planes right now.”

United Chairman Oscar Munoz and CEO Scott Kirby sent a letter to employees Wednesday outlining additional steps that the airline was taking to reduce schedules “due to decline in demand flowing from the impact of COVID-19.”

“We’re reducing the number of frequencies per week, finding routes with alternative travel options via other United hubs, and delaying start dates for seasonal travel to certain destinations — without closing any domestic stations,” the letter said.

At the same time, the carrier is instituting a hiring freeze, postponing salary increases and giving active, non-probationary, U.S.-based employees the option to apply for a voluntary, unpaid leave of absence or in some cases, a reduced schedule.

The airline industry is definitely experiencing increasing coronavirus- related turbulence and incredible changes. After all, it was only in January that Hawaii Tourism Korea reported to the Hawaii Tourism Authority that Korean Air was thinking of increasing its KE051 flights to Hawaii “by redirecting aircraft deployed on routes between Korea and China/Southeast Asia where there have been sharp decreases in load factors and revenue since the outbreak of coronavirus.”

Korean Air’s cutbacks likely won’t have as significant an impact on Hawaii’s overall market as United’s reductions. Still, prior to the cutback, DIIO airline data showed Korean Airlines with 408 flights to Hawaii and 143,844 seats servicing the state (January- December 2020). That’s an average of eight flights and 2,766 seats per week.

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