On the day that Gov. David Ige lifted the interisland passenger quarantine, Randall Fermin, 47, bought tickets for himself and his family from Honolulu to Kauai.
“When we heard they were lifting the two-week quarantine, that’s when we booked the flight — the day of that announcement,” he said.
Fermin had planned the flight in April to celebrate his father’s 100th birthday, but that plan was scrapped once COVID-19 hit Hawaii. On Tuesday afternoon he was with his wife, three daughters and niece at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport to head to Kauai to celebrate both his father’s belated birthday and Father’s Day.
The Fermin ohana had anticipated heavy traffic at the airport and potential issues because of the new procedure for interisland travel, so they arrived at the airport about two hours early. But the airport was mostly empty, so they didn’t have trouble checking in.
Passenger counts all but zeroed out after the state implemented a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state passengers March 26, and they tanked even more after April 1 when the state included interisland passengers in the lockdown. The Hawaii Tourism Authority said only 1,769 passengers arrived in Hawaii on Monday and that only 375 were visitors. During a normal June an average of 35,000 passengers flies into Hawaii.
Local travel demand for Hawaii did pick up slightly with the lifting of the interisland quarantine. However, interisland travel alone won’t be enough to keep Hawaii’s nearly $18 billion industry from falling off a cliff, said Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting. Nor, he added, will it be enough to allow Hawaii’s visitor industry to support anywhere near the 216,000 jobs that it did last year.
The move has allowed a few Hawaii hotels to reopen for business, although not many of those that temporarily shuttered after the trans-Pacific quarantine. Some hotels plan to reopen as early as July — contingent on whether the state comes up with a COVID-19 testing plan that would allow travelers with negative tests to bypass the quarantine.
“It’s really important we get out-of-state tourism going again,” said Hawaii hotel- ier Jerry Gibson. “We have to find a balance and get people back to work again.”
Gibson said the gradual recovery of interisland tourism isn’t going to bring back most of the jobs that have been lost. However, it will help the hotels that were already open gain a slight boost in occupancy.
“A few Waikiki hotels did report a pickup for this coming weekend — nothing huge, but better than the last month,” Gibson said.
Most Hawaii residents have been reluctant to travel amid COVID-19 fears and tourism lockdowns.
Carol Iwai, 74, delayed booking a flight to the Big Island to see her great-granddaughter until the interisland quarantine was lifted. Though retired, she wasn’t willing to spend two 14-day quarantines — one after landing on the Big Island and one after coming back to Honolulu.
The rules for interisland travel became a lot less onerous Tuesday, though anyone who traveled before Tuesday, even Monday, must still complete the 14-day self-quarantine.
Departing interisland passengers must have their temperature taken and complete a new travel and health form prior to each flight. Passengers with a temperature over 100.4 are not allowed to fly.
For more details on the changes, visit the frequently asked questions page on the state’s new travel website, 808ne.ws/FAQinterisland.
“The first day went really well, and the lines remained short and very orderly,” said state Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara.
“Passengers were prepared, and the majority came to the airport with their travel and health form completed and printed out in advance, which is encouraged and will save time,” he said.
Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Tara Shimooka said the carrier was encouraged by booking activity surrounding the end of the interisland quarantine and anticipated more than double the number of passengers that it had a week ago. However, the number of seats, including an onboard reduction for social distancing, and passengers were still down about 75% from 2019 levels, Shimooka said.
Prior to the pandemic, Hawaiian was offering, on average, more than 160 daily jet flights between the islands, she said. In recent weeks Hawaiian has been operating a reduced schedule to maintain critical connectivity for essential workers and cargo, with about 20 daily round trips connecting Honolulu with Lihue, Kahului, Kona and Hilo, Shimooka added.
“Effective (Tuesday), we have increased frequencies on all of our neighbor island routes, ranging from seven to up to 11 daily round trips per market. At the same time, we’ve increased our ‘Ohana by Hawaiian flights from two to three daily round trips between Honolulu and Molokai and Lanai,” she said. “We will keep a close watch on demand and adjust as needed.”
Some scaling up is expected. Beginning July 1, Shimooka said, Hawaiian plans to add once-daily serv- ice between Honolulu and Portland, Ore., in addition to the existing three daily flights between Honolulu and Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle to support essential travel and carry critical cargo.
New safety measures
Both Hawaiian and its interisland competitor Southwest Airlines have implemented new safety protocols and have created more social distancing opportunities. Hawaiian has capped its main cabin load factor to 70%. It’s also blocking middle seats to provide guests with more personal space through July 31. Middle seats will be open on all Southwest flights at least through Sept. 30.
Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, said the end of the interisland quarantine brought “an immediate and very positive response among locals.”
However, Hawkins said the number of customers who are connecting to the neighbor islands is still down given that Southwest’s mainland service for June consists only of twice-daily Oakland, Calif.-to-Honolulu service.
Hawkins said some interisland flying has returned in June with two to three daily round trips in most nonstop markets. By July 1 the carrier intends that all pre-COVID interisland flights will have been restored, he said. It also plans to increase Honolulu-Kahului service to six times from four times daily.
Southwest’s full pre-COVID mainland-Hawaii schedule is planned to resume in early July, Hawkins said. San Diego service also is scheduled to launch July 1, he said.
In the interim Southwest and Hawaiian continue to bleed millions daily. If the state doesn’t find a way to lift restrictions on trans-Pacific travel, the picture could get much worse.
“We are one of many Hawaii-based businesses trying to weather an external crisis. We welcome the lifting of the neighbor island quarantine because it helps residents reconnect with their friends and families on other islands. It also allows us to put more of our planes in the air, including some of our A321s (planes), and provides us with revenue,” Shimooka said. “However, our long-term health depends upon being able to welcome visitors to Hawaii without quarantine restrictions.”
Hawaiian, one of the state’s largest employers, already has instituted a hiring freeze along with other cost-saving initiatives across the company. Roughly half of its employees have taken voluntary leave (with benefits) in two-week increments. Hawaiian’s officers also have taken pay cuts of 10% to 50%.
The CARES Act payroll support program has allowed Hawaiian to avoid involuntary furloughs through September, but the clock is ticking.
So far, Southwest, the largest domestic carrier, has been able to avoid layoffs and pay cuts — cost-saving tools that it’s never used.
Hawkins said he couldn’t speak to future staffing decisions. But Southwest’s CEO and other executives have been on the record stating often, “We can’t promise there won’t ever be layoffs, especially if demand doesn’t materialize, but we certainly intend for that to be one of the last things we consider.”
“Our work to cut costs now is aimed at furthering that legacy of which we are very proud and also ensuring that Hawaii knows Southwest is committed to the Aloha State,” Hawkins said. “Southwest is fully committed to serving Hawaii with both mainland and interisland service.”
”There’s a ‘never say never’ disclaimer that’s required, but we have no intention of suspending our commitment to Hawaii,” he said.