Hawaiian Airlines and Southwest Airlines are reinstating service in time for the Aug. 1 launch of a COVID-19 passenger testing program that will allow Hawaii’s tourism industry to reopen to out-of-state visitors.
The additional domestic airlift is a crucial step in rebuilding Hawaii’s tourism industry, which tanked in March amid COVID-19 fears and government lockdowns and still hasn’t come back.
However, international airlift to Hawaii still remains suspended due to restrictions on inbound travel. That lag will hurt Oahu — where some Waikiki hotels historically have relied on robust bookings from Japan, Oceania and Canada — far more than the neighbor islands.
Visitors don’t tend to like the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for trans-Pacific passengers that has been in place since March 26. Hawaii Tourism Authority reported on Monday that only 9,116 visitors traveled to Hawaii by air and cruise ships in May compared to 841,376 during the same period a year ago. HTA reported that only 436 visitors came to Hawaii on Tuesday.
Hawaiian Airlines announced Wednesday that it is resuming most of its U.S. mainland routes and will increase its neighbor island schedule — although international service will remain suspended.
Southwest Airlines announced in mid-June that it would restore its interisland and mainland service in Hawaii to pre-COVID levels on Aug. 1 along with the launch of its San Diego to Honolulu service. Southwest’s July schedule will look just like its June schedule.
The carriers’ decisions follow Gov. David Ige’s announcement last week that starting Aug. 1 the state would allow passengers with approved negative COVID-19 tests taken within 72 hours of their trip to Hawaii to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state passengers. The out-of-state quarantine runs through July 31 and is expected to be extended.
“The layered safety measures put in place to protect the health of our local communities promise to make travel to and from Hawai‘i more accessible than in recent months,” said Peter Ingram, president and CEO of Hawaiian Airlines, in a statement. “We look forward to welcoming onboard guests who support and observe the protocols in place for responsible travel, including our visitors and kamaaina reconnecting with family and friends on the U.S. mainland.”
Hawaiian began once-daily service between Honolulu and Portland, Ore., on Wednesday. It will add once-daily service to San Diego and Sacramento, Calif., on July 15.
Effective Aug. 1, the carrier said it plans to reinstate nonstop service from six U.S. mainland cities to Honolulu, including Boston; New York; Las Vegas; Phoenix; San Jose, Calif., and Oakland, Calif. Hawaiian said it also plans to resume some West Coast-to-neighbor island routes with its narrow-body Airbus A321neo aircraft, including Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento, to Kahului, Maui; Los Angeles and Oakland to Lihue, Kauai; and Los Angeles to Kona on Hawaii island.
Starting Aug. 6, Hawaiian plans to resume weekly service between Honolulu and American Samoa.
The announcements are what Brad DiFiore, Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting managing director, forecast at last month’s Pacific Asia Travel Association of Hawaii economic forum.
Pre-coronavirus schedules had Hawaii monthly seat capacity up 7% for April, May and June, DiFiore said. But schedule reductions were dramatic, resulting in an 89% decrease and almost no international capacity, he added.
DiFiore’s air outlook for 2020 shows that domestic travel will drive Hawaii’s initial recovery, which will not occur until the quarantine is eliminated. Domestic recovery will focus initially on West Coast markets and a handful of interior hub markets, he said.
DiFiore added that restoration of Hawaii’s harder-hit international air service won’t happen until quarantines are eliminated at both ends. Border restrictions vary but all foreign countries in the early part of June were still requiring 14-day quarantines upon return from the United States, he said.
The state is pursuing travel agreements that would ease restrictions into Hawaii for countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand where COVID-19 cases and deaths have been low. However, insiders say the track record for COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as a whole is hampering Hawaii’s progress.
Eric Takahata, managing director for Hawaii Tourism Japan, said Hawaii’s proposal to form a travel corridor with Japan was submitted to the Japanese government about a week and a half ago and now the ball is in Japan’s court.
“We know that it made it to the prime minister and the foreign minister, but we are still waiting for a response,” Takahata said. “The Japanese government would have to carve us out of the rest of the U.S.”
Takahata said Hawaii has asked the Japanese government to allow visitors from Japan who come to Hawaii to bypass the quarantine when they get home. Hawaii officials also asked them to reduce the travel advisory for Hawaii to a Level 1. Currently, Hawaii and the rest of the U.S. are at a Level 3, which means that the Japanese government strongly advises travelers not to come.
“No one is flying into Hawaii from Japan now, but they would if we had a travel corridor,” Takahata said. “The demand is there. I’m getting about 20 calls a day from visitors — some are even willing to take a PR-C (nasal swab) test to come here.”
Surfjack Hotel &Swim Club’s General Manager Lynette Eastman said more Hawaiian and Southwest service might improve domestic momentum. However, it won’t be enough to fill rooms at all of the 100 or so hotels that are open or to get the 130 or so hotels that are still closed back in business.
“Our July is hopeful we’re at 60% occupancy due to military and a sprinkling of kamaaina travelers,” Eastman said. “But I’m really worried about fall which is at a disturbing 10% occupancy or less.”
Eastman said California travelers are Surfjack’s third best market but Japan holds the No. 1 spot and Australia the No. 2 spot.
“Japan and Australia aren’t going to come here if their countries make it difficult for them when they return,” she said. “Also, there’s a lot going on with cases in California. Some people are waiting to see what happens, although more flights does make it easier to get here for those who are ready to travel.”