It was a solid first day for the reopening of Hawaii tourism with 8,000-plus passengers coming through local airports — still only a little more than a third of October 2019’s daily domestic air traffic.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara said about 30 flights arrived in Honolulu from out of state Thursday, compared with about 100 on any given day before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the islands. According to Hawaii Airports System data, some 51 trans-Pacific flights with the potential to fill roughly 10,319 seats among them were scheduled to have arrived Thursday throughout the state.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green estimated as many as 8,300 passengers flew into Hawaii for opening day of the state’s pre-arrival testing program, which got off to what he called an “extraordinary” start.
While airline service and seats were significantly below pre-coronavirus times, planes were filled to at least 80% capacity — a respectable load factor.
Thursday’s higher passenger counts brought pockets of Daniel K. Inouye International Airport alive again, but the traffic might be more reflective of pent-up demand than what’s in store for the rest of the month and beyond.
“A lot of travelers who were coming Oct. 12, 13 or 14 rescheduled to come in today so that they could participate in the pre-arrivals testing program,” Sakahara said.
Alaska Airlines spokesman Daniel Chun said that over the next three to four days, the carrier expects its trans-Pacific flights to be “somewhere at or near full capacity” and sees “pretty strong demand” from now until Thanksgiving.
Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said the carrier had anticipated an uptick Thursday and over the next few days because people were waiting for an opportunity to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine.
Madera, Calif., residents Gail Tesei and wife Alice, who flew into Oahu about midday, said they canceled their trip to Hawaii three times this year because of the quarantine.
“We’ve been following the local news. Lt. Gov. Josh Green is how we knew what to do,” Alice Tesei said. “We’re really excited to be back in Hawaii. We first came for our honeymoon, and we’ve been here about 30 times. We’ll celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary on Oct. 19.”
Gail Tesai said the couple got their testing done at a CVS location and received their results within two days. They were among the 80% or so of arriving passengers who Sakahara said came into the state Thursday with their test results in hand.
“To me that’s a great indication that the testing program is working,” Sakahara said.
Vanessa Gallegos and Andrew Folsom of Bakersfield, Calif., were among the passengers who arrived still waiting for their test results. However, the Hilo-bound couple weren’t discouraged by the possibility of having to quarantine for a few days.
“The testing was super easy, and I’m sure we’ll get the results back soon,” Folsom said. “The main reason that we’re here is to surprise my mother. She lives here, and I haven’t seen her since Christmas.”
Gov. David Ige made news in March when he asked visitors to stay away from Hawaii during the pandemic and instituted the quarantine, which remains in effect through Nov. 30.
On Thursday, Ige officially invited visitors back under Safe Travels Hawaii, the nation’s most rigorous entry program.
“The pre-travel testing program is just one part of our multilayered system that we believe is making Hawaii once again a safe place to travel,” Ige said during a media briefing at the Honolulu airport. “It is an important step to reviving our economy. We are asking for the same diligence and care from our visitors that we expect from our residents.”
Travelers who provide written confirmation from a state-approved COVID-19 testing partner of a negative result from a test administered within 72 hours of the final leg of departure are now allowed to bypass the quarantine. (For more information, visit Hawaii COVID19.com or call 800- GOHAWAII.)
Travelers who arrive in Hawaii unable to show proof of a negative test must quarantine until the test result is received. Travelers who come to Hawaii without having taken a pre-arrival test must submit to the mandatory 14-day quarantine, even if they undergo testing after arriving and get a negative result.
A second test after arrival is required for visitors to Hawaii island, who will take a free rapid test at the airport. If the test is positive, travelers will be given a PCR test and have to quarantine until they get a negative result. Maui and Kauai counties aren’t requiring visitors take a second test after arrival, but are providing incentives to visitors who agree to take a free voluntary test 72 hours after arrival.
Maui and Kauai counties will allow interisland travelers to bypass the quarantine if passengers pre-test for COVID-19 72 hours prior to departure under the same rules as the state’s trans-Pacific travel program. Hawaii island still requires interisland travelers to quarantine.
Sean Dee, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Outrigger Hospitality Group, said he expects Hawaii tourism is in for a slow recovery, a view shared by many in the industry.
Dee said October’s scheduled daily trans-Pacific arriving flights are still down from a normal month, when there are about 180 flights per day. Dee said the 40 or so daily flights scheduled to come in October are mostly from the West Coast, from which carriers typically use smaller narrow-body planes generally averaging under 200 seats.
“Most airlines are also blocking middle seats, so capacity is roughly 70%. Even in the best of times, yields run in the low 80% range, so the most optimistic recovery would show 100 seats per flight will materialize,” Dee said. “That translates to an ambitious estimate of 4,000 passengers per day.”
Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, cautioned about reading too much into a few days of robust arrivals.
“You can’t just look at arrivals. You have to look at the booking pace, and I don’t see significant growth there,” Vieira said.
Dee said recovering tourism is going to be even more of a struggle for the neighbor islands, where he estimates the daily combined forecast for arrivals in October will be just 1,377.
Vieira said Hawaii island’s visitor industry recovery has been challenged by the mandatory post-arrival test requirement and decision not to allow travelers to bypass the interisland quarantine.
“People are still very confused, especially about Hawaii island,” Vieira said. “The Sheraton Kona was at 40% occupancy before the last tourism lockdown shut down interisland travel. They only had eight arrivals Thursday.
“My understanding is that the hotels aren’t benefiting as much as the airlines because there are a lot of returning residents,” Vieira said. “People have been waiting to come home and visit, and there are college kids that went away and they’re coming back because their schools never opened.”