As Rusty Willis sees it, Hawaiian Airlines’ return to New Zealand is a bit like a 400m hurdler looking towards the finish line.
It’s within sight but there’s a few gnarly obstacles to get over before reaching the target.
The airline flew its last plane out of Auckland on March 22 last year and the pandemic and border closures have kept it away ever since, but it is on track to return by the end of April.
It is one of more than a dozen airlines that have paused operations and must make a call soon on its return as border restrictions slowly loosen.
Willis has headed the New Zealand operation since it was launched in 2013 and says Hawaiian is keen, but it’s been a matter of nailing down the date and getting through those hoops.
In other parts of its network, Hawaiian is flying around 80 per cent of its pre-Covid schedule and while it’s hit an Omicron bump, it is due soon to resume flights between Sydney and Honolulu this month.
The region, including New Zealand, has been a good one for the 92-year-old airline and it has carried hundreds of thousands of Kiwis to the island state.
Its entry into the Auckland-Honolulu route shook it up and forced incumbent, and fierce rival, Air New Zealand at one stage to drop return fares below $500 — a quarter of what was charged before competition.
Air New Zealand is back in the market, putting three-times-a-week flights back into the system from April 14 next year to coincide with the school holidays. One-way economy fares start at $454.
Willis has been deeply involved in strategic planning and special projects for Hawaiian during its hiatus and is champing at the bit to get back. He says that his customers continually ask him when the planes with the Pualani flower will be back in Auckland.
“We’re definitely back here in 2022. You’ll see us back.”
That could be late April with flights likely to hit the airline’s schedule this weekend.
The airline is “constantly monitoring” border settings which means it will be Kiwis — the majority of passengers on Hawaiian flights north and south — who will be the first market to tap into.
Double-vaccinated Kiwis will be able to re-enter New Zealand from countries other than Australia without MIQ from February 14.They will instead be able to isolate at home for seven days.
This makes travel feasible to places like Hawaii for those with the ability to spend a week at home after their trip.
Foreign visitors must wait until the end of April to skip MIQ and under the current rules will also have to self isolate meaning the inbound market would remain limited. And it is not yet known where United States citizens will be in the queue for the phased re-opening of New Zealand’s borders.
Pre-pandemic Hawaiian flew an average of four round trips out of Auckland a week, three out of Brisbane and daily out of Sydney. About 300,000 passengers were carried a year, with many flying on to the airline’s then 13, now three more mainland US destinations.
The United States is seen as the long-haul market that could recover first for Kiwi travellers and tourists, when they can come back. “While NZ borders have been closed, Hawaiian has also been expanding,” he says.
“We now fly daily non-stop between Hawaii and 16 US gateway cities – more than any other airline.”
It had over the past year added Austin, Texas, Orlando, Florida and Ontario, California.
Staff numbers have been halved in this region but the airline maintained a presence in New Zealand led by Willis, described early this year by a regional boss as a “one-man army”.
Willis says the past two years had been “challenging” but New Zealand remained a big part of the airline’s network.
“As soon as the Government confirms its [plans], we would be setting in motion our restart plans.”
While airlines that have continued to fly mainly freight here can restart “hot” when passengers come back, Hawaiian must restart “cold”.
How do you restart an airline?
He says work starts months ahead together with aviation authorities and the origin and destination airports.
Restart preparations include compliance requirements and reactivating the processes that go into receiving an aircraft, its turnaround and preparation for boarding guests for an outbound flight.
Operational preparations include considerations such as filing for landing and departure slots, audits of security (particularly stringent on flights to the US) and safety systems, IT checks and training or retraining of ground crew.
After an absence of two years, and a pandemic which has changed so much about the process of travel, it will be a more complex process than simply launching a new service or new route.
Pilots will have to do simulator training to reacquaint them with arrival and departure from Auckland Airport.
Catering contracts have to be renegotiated, planning out a menu that is uniquely Hawaiian.
The food and beverage service is tailored to, and synchronised with, flight durations and timing, and the airline needs to revisit the planning of logistics to move food, beverages and supplies to the aircraft and to remove incoming waste from the aircraft.
Accommodation for crew, who from the beginning of last month were required to be fully vaccinated, need to be renegotiated in Auckland for overnight stays.
The airline works through a detailed checklist to meet regulatory requirements.
It must first meet bilateral Government and regulatory approvals to be able to operate between New Zealand and the US and ensure that its Foreign Air Operators Certificate is current with this country’s Civil Aviation Authority.
“We will be recommencing in a changed operating environment due to the pandemic, with new compliance requirements, processes and regulations applying every step of the way in ground and inflight operations,” says Willis.
An example of this is ensuring all staff are following masking protocols and verifying passengers are compliant with government entry requirements, including vaccination and testing.
Marketing the service will be a new challenge and, as with other airlines, data which feeds pricing decisions is almost useless.
“We need to first understand what that market will look like compared to prior to the Covid pandemic — the right capacity for demand, the reaction of specific market segments initially and over time.”
The airline would bring back its 278-seat, spacious wide-body Airbus A330 aircraft, which features 18 premium cabin lie-flat seats, 68 extra comfort seats, and 192 main cabin seats.
Willis says that before the pandemic the premium cabin was at or near capacity in the New Zealand market.
”The travel trade also will be reopening to international travel after a long break and will need our support, so we envisage a high level of communication.”
He says the airline will be “kick-starting all parts of the selling puzzle” and the range of distribution options that travellers will now seek.
This includes the surviving travel agencies, online travel agents (OTAs), travel apps and via the airline’s own website.
The airline is encouraged by demand, Delta and Omicron strains, aside.
Theo Panagiotoulias, senior vice-president, sales and alliances at Hawaiian Airlines says there has been unprecedented demand for travel from the US mainland to Hawaii, which allowed the carrier to operate its largest July schedule ever, on those routes this year.
“The surge of the Delta variant across the US during August and September did bring short-term setbacks; however, demand has now returned,” he says.
“The part of our business where recovery has been most elusive is international (such as New Zealand) where restrictions on travel continue to stifle demand.”
What was encouraging is that the necessary pre-conditions for recovery are now falling into place.
“Most importantly, from a network-wide perspective, vaccination rates in Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — which lagged the US in the early part of 2021 — have dramatically accelerated.
Lockdown confinement has been challenging for many, so people want to travel — especially for leisure.
“When domestic travel restrictions were relaxed in the US leisure demand responded quickly and we are confident the response in international markets will be similar,” he says.
The emergence of Omicron has disrupted restart plans in Australia and resulted in new pre-departure testing requirements for those entering the US states, including Hawaii.
With roughly 90,000 Covid cases and 1030 deaths reported as of the start of the month, Hawaii has suffered relatively low Covid numbers compared with other states in the US that didn’t have such strict measures. Before the latest Omicron scare the state was rapidly reopening to international markets.
In the third quarter of this year Hawaiian Airlines reported an adjusted net loss of US$48.7 million.
The company reported total revenue of US$508.8m, down 33 per cent compared to the third quarter of 2019, on 21 per cent lower capacity.
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