10 years later, American will give Charlotte-Honolulu a second try

Dec 23, 2020

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Ten years after American Airlines predecessor US Airways decided to give up on a Charlotte-Honolulu flight just three months after starting it, American is ready to try again.

American says it will begin flights on the route May 6 and operate through Sept. 7, flying a Boeing 777-200 seating 273 passengers. Service will be twice weekly through June 3, then go to daily for the rest of the summer season.

Honolulu might seem a long-shot destination from Charlotte, given the 10-hour westbound flight, the limited number of connecting markets east of Charlotte and US Airways’ quick decision to cut the flight.

But today’s airline industry is far different than 10 years ago, when US Airways tried to make Charlotte-Honolulu work with a Boeing 767 that seated about 200 passengers.

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This time, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, “I think there is significant demand for Hawaii from the East Coast,” said aviation consultant Bob Mann.

Compared to the Caribbean as a vacation destination, “Travel takes two extra days, but Hawaii has a bucket list, ‘got to do it once in a lifetime’ allure for a lot of people,” Mann said.

During the pandemic, Hawaii has benefitted from travelers’ focus on leisure destinations, although it has maintained a quarantine for visitors.

Currently, visitors to Hawaii are required to self-quarantine for 10 days following their arrival. However, pre-travel testing enables travelers to bypass quarantine if they bring proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Rules have changed regularly and may well be different by May 6.

Hawaiian Airlines, in particular, is expanding service to the mainland U.S. The carrier relaunched Boston and New York-JFK flights just in time for Christmas travel. It also recently announced plans to add three mainland destinations in 2021: Ontario, California, and Orlando in March, and Austin, Texas, in April.

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American currently operates a dozen Hawaii flights: Dallas to Honolulu, Kahului and Kona; Los Angeles to Honolulu, Kahului, Kona and Lihue; Chicago to Honolulu; and Phoenix to Honolulu, Kahului, Kona and Lihue.

American continues efforts to flow traffic through its Charlotte and Dallas hubs, connecting passengers who might once have flown nonstop. In the third quarter, about one-third of all U.S. airline passengers flew on American.

International travel is likely to remain down this summer, freeing up 777s. Also, Mann noted, if travelers redeem frequent flyer miles to fly to Hawaii, American gets a revenue bump, because frequent flyer miles are carried as liability until they are redeemed. Redemptions “now contribute more than the lowest selling fare in some cases,” Mann said.

Still, lessons loom from US Airways’ surprisingly quick decision to drop the service 10 years ago. Of course, US Airways tapped a smaller network of passengers than American does. Still,  US Airways had a strong East Coast presence in 2009 and Charlotte was its largest hub.

The service began on Dec. 17, 2009. Three-and-a-half months later, in April 2010, US Airways said it would suspend the flights at the end of the summer travel season, largely because of high fuel prices. The service lasted nine months, until Sept. 8.

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“Despite our efforts to make this flight a success, our forecasts show that we’re simply not going to generate the revenue we need to continue operating the flight, so we’re moving quickly to suspend it and focus on more profitable flying,” wrote Mike Britman, managing director of network planning, in a US Airways employee newsletter at the time.

“We expect the flight to do well during the busy summer travel season, but we no longer believe it is financially sustainable on a year-round basis,” Britman said, noting that fuel prices had risen since the flight was announced.

“Because CLT-HNL is a long-haul flight, fuel represents a much larger percentage of expenses than on other flights,” he said. “The flight requires approximately 10 million gallons of fuel per year. Each increase of just 10 cents to the cost of a gallon of fuel adds about $1 million in expenses for us for this route.”

More: Airlines are flying some unexpected routes during the pandemic. Will they stick around?

Today, jet fuel costs around $1.40 a gallon, according to Airlines for America. That is down from around $2 a gallon 10 years ago.

When US Airways announced Charlotte-Honolulu in June 2009, Britman dismissed a reporter’s skeptical characterization of the route, saying: “We don’t think this is a gutsy move at all.”

He noted that getting from the East Coast to Hawaii was a challenge – which is still the case.

Featured photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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