Hawaiian Airlines is the latest carrier to think outside route planning box during the coronavirus pandemic.
With most of its international flights to Asia and Australia suspended for the foreseeable future, the Honolulu-based carrier is turning east. Hawaiian will add Ontario to its portfolio of airports in Southern California on March 16, and land in booming tech capital Austin on April 21. It plans to fly an Airbus A321 NEO to the former airport and an A330-200 to the latter.
Hawaiian will also add new service between Long Beach and Kahului on Maui on March 9, operating A321 NEOs on the route.
California is very much in Hawaiian’s wheelhouse as its largest U.S. mainland market. And Austin has emerged a popular destination for Californians settling outside the state — bringing their affinity for Hawaii holidays with them.
It’s Hawaiian’s decision to add Orlando to its map that’s turning heads. The airline will launch twice-weekly service between Honolulu and the Central Florida city with an Airbus A330-200 on March 11.
The addition is just the latest in a string of unexpected route map expansions by U.S. airlines amid the Covid-19 crisis. JetBlue Airways is launching more than 60 new routes, Southwest Airlines adding 10 new cities to its map in the fastest network expansion in its history, and United Airlines is bypassing its hubs with new nonstops to Florida this winter.
Each new destination and route — including Hawaiian’s to Florida and Texas — is an attempt by airlines to put otherwise idled jets to work in the hopes of boosting revenues, bringing much needed dollars during the worst crisis to ever hit the industry.
While most people living on the U.S. mainland think of Hawaii as a tropical getaway, residents of the archipelago look for destinations where they can be “entertained,” Hawaiian Senior Vice President of Revenue Management and Network Planning Brent Overbeek told Airline Weekly. This destination-driven travel has earned Las Vegas the nickname the “ninth island” among the state’s inhabitants.
Orlando, like Las Vegas, boasts an attractive buffet of entertainment options for Hawaiians. These include the Universal Orlando Resort and all of the properties and parks in the Walt Disney World orbit.
“It’s not uncommon to see Mickey Mouse ears on the last flight out of Los Angeles,” Overbeek said of Disney’s popularity among Hawaii residents. Though he referred to Disneyland visitors rather than the park’s larger sibling in Florida.
In fact, Austin and Orlando were two of the three most popular destinations without a nonstop flight to Hawaii, he said. The third is Baltimore/Washington — though Hawaiian has no immediate plans for a new flight, yet.
Hawaiian’s Orlando route will have to rely on more than just Hawaiians visiting the Magic Kingdom to succeed. The airline must also draw flyers from Central Florida — a region that is home to more than six million people Census estimates for 2019 show — to its new nonstop flight.
“We like to travel too,” Vicki Jaramillo, the senior director leading marketing and air service development at the Orlando airport, told Airline Weekly.
An average of 224 people a day flew between both the Orlando and Tampa airports and Hawaii in 2019, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data via Cirium. Traveler numbers are significantly lower for 2020 owing to the pandemic.
The A330-200 that Hawaiian will fly to Orlando seats 278 travelers.
For now, the twice-weekly service is a low lift for Hawaiian. The flights are timed to begin around school breaks in both Florida and Hawaii in the hopes that cooped-up families will take advantage of the new service and set up the airline up for the summer ahead.
Most in the industry point to pent-up demand among would be flyers during the pandemic. They expect a surge in travel once there is the pandemic is generally under control — though no one can say when exactly that will occur. And while the likely imminent availability of a COVID-19 vaccine is good news, few in the industry expect it to be widely available before at least mid-2021.
“I don’t think there’s an end in sight until I can line up for that vaccine sometime in the second quarter of next year,” Cowen & Co. airline analyst Helane Becker said at the Skift Aviation Forum in November.
Hawaiian is certainly hoping enough people will have queued up and gotten their shots by March.