For a small, but growing minority of travellers to North America, it’s a well-kept secret way to avoid the crush and the customs queue when you enter the country the normal way at Los Angeles international airport.
By comparison, greater Honolulu is a big country town (population roughly the same as Adelaide) and, compared to LAX, the airport is a breeze to get into and out of, and using Hawaii as an alternative entry point doesn’t add significant time in the air as many routes to north America from Australia pass close to the islands.
Added to the attraction of entering the States by the backdoor is that the hometown carrier, Hawaiian Airlines, is highly rated for its simple full-service business and economy cabins and wins the prize almost every year for North America’s most punctual carrier.
After years as an airline from America’s sleepy hollow, Hawaiian began growing rapidly three years ago with a raft of new international destinations in Australasia and Asia.
“Going back to 2010, less than 10 per cent of our revenue was international,” says Hawaiian’s chief commercial officer Peter Ingram, who spoke to Travellers' Check from Honolulu on Saturday. “We had three flights a week to Sydney and four to Manila, but most of our business was either North America to Hawaii or flying within the islands of Hawaii.
“As we’ve grown over the past couple of years, international has grown to about a third of our revenue.”
Through most of the 1990s, there was not a single direct flight between Australia and Hawaii, whereas in the 1980s, when old generation planes had to stop in Honolulu for fuel en route to Australia, there were several a day.
With the introduction of the ultra-long-range Boeing 747-400 in 1989, big planes (and not just the smaller and relatively uneconomic Boeing 747SP flown non-stop across the Pacific by Qantas and Pan Am in the 1980s) were able to fly non-stop from Los Angeles to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland for the first time and the option of a tropical holiday en route to and from mainland disappeared.
The large market that had built up over decades for Australians wanting to holiday in the Hawaiian islands was suddenly left high and dry overnight, so Hawaiian re-introduced three flights a week in 2004. Soon after, both Qantas and Jetstar added Honolulu to their networks.
“We saw that as an opportunity to rekindle some of that affection for Hawaii,” says Ingram. “It certainly helped that the strengthening of the Australian currency over the last several years has meant that, with strong economy at your end, the United States and Hawaii have been a much more accessible destination than maybe it was 10 years ago.”
Apart from its inter-island services, Hawaiian flies to 10 cities on the western US mainland – Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix – and last year launched its first daily non-stop from Honolulu to New York’s JFK airport, which connects with flights from Sydney and Brisbane, although it requires a stopover on the return journey.
Compared with the cheapest seats to New York, the Hawaii option is generally $200-$300 dearer for a return ticket, with low season rates starting at about $1750 return from Sydney.
“As we grow our business internationally, to Australia, to New Zealand and to Asia, it has been an important extra benefit of what we provide to be able to give that connectivity and, also for a lot of people to be able to do multi-destination trips: you can spent some time in Hawaii, you can spend some time in Las Vegas or Los Angeles on one trip and you can do it all on Hawaiian Airlines,” says Peter Ingram.
I’ve flown on Hawaiian – a single red-eye overnight trip from Honolulu to Los Angeles about six years ago when flying to Hawaii with Jetstar was the only way of entering the US cheaply (an advantage that has since been usurped by increased competition to Los Angeles) – and rate the airline one of my favourite two North American carriers along with low-cost carrier Southwest.
Perhaps the key to Hawaiian’s appeal is that Hawaii is a holiday destination and the airline therefore does not have a pre-dominant business focus.
“We’re focused on leisure, whereas for a lot of our big network competitors, leisure is a byproduct,” Ingram says. “For us, leisure is the product.”
Would you travel to the US via Hawaii if it meant avoiding LAX? Does it stack up economically or does the compulsory cost of accommodation in Hawaii in at least one direction negate the benefits? What have your experiences of entering the US been like? Have you been stuck in queues, subject to invasive searches or delayed? Post your comments below.