Hawaiian handles shutdown challenges

  • Photo by Marco Garcia / Associated Press

    President and CEO Peter Ingram is guiding the direction of Hawaiian Airlines.

For Peter Ingram, the government shutdown was actually a curse and a blessing.

And it may again be that, since President Donald Trump has threatened to issue an executive decree diverting money to his wall from military construction projects if Congress does not accede to his demands within three weeks.

While his political hand may seem weak, the president and CEO of Hawaiian Airlines knows Hawaiian may suddenly find itself back in the throes of deteriorating air-traffic-control systems and dependent on unpaid federal workers.

Behind the scenes, Hawaiian went to some lengths to mitigate the suffering of affected employees, particularly those with the Transportation Security Administration.

While the shutdown wreaked havoc with U.S. air operations and employees, it also produced an unintended benefit for Hawaiian by delaying Southwest Airlines’ plans to expand into the Hawaii market. With the situation still unsettled, Southwest’s Hawaii foray may encounter more rough sledding. That’s a blessing for Ingram and his company.

That’s because a Federal Aviation Administration process to certify the version of the Boeing 737 that Southwest intends to fly to Lihue and other Hawaii destinations was stopped dead in its tracks by the shutdown.

A spokesperson for Southwest confirmed that the FAA certification was stalled with two steps remaining before the aircraft would be legal to carry passengers to Hawaii. How long the certification may take since the government reopened, he said, is impossible to know.

Ingram knows the shutdown was just a reprieve from the ultimate arrival of Southwest, but he did concede it is a small consolation for the adaptations Hawaiian Airlines made to keep TSA employees motivated to stay on the job.

It’s been almost like planning for aircraft meals. As of late last week, Hawaiian had:

• Served bento box lunches to TSA workers in Honolulu and Hilo, threw a lunch for them in Lihue and delivered pizza to screeners in Kahului. In Kona, Hawaiian Airlines employees chipped in for meals for 150 TSA employees;

• Collaborated with other airlines that share its terminal at Los Angeles International Airport to provide food for TSA workers;

• Served pizza to TSA and federal airline workers in Pago Pago, American Samoa;

• Hosted a Hawaiian luau in San Diego for TSA workers, airport control tower staff members and U.S. Coast Guard personnel who were also working without paychecks;

• Collected canned and other nonperishable food to be passed onto TSA workers at four of its Honolulu administrative locations. Employees also volunteered at the Hawaii Food Bank.

In one sense, Hawaiian has a secret weapon in its impending battle with Southwest, which is the aircraft it uses on most of its interisland flights, the Boeing 717. The plane, originally designed in the early 1990s by McDonnell Douglas, had a difficult youth. It was first made in 1995 but was never hugely attractive to airlines. It was purposely designed for small passenger loads — with just 128 seats versus the 175 in the 737-800s Southwest will use.

After Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas, the company killed the airplane after a large order from Air Canada fell through in the wake of the post 9/11 global economic downturn.

Hawaiian Airlines bought 11 of the 717s among the 156 manufactured.

Like many airlines that did embrace the plane, Hawaiian found it to be a moneymaker. It has since bought another nine on the used market — a practice that has become more popular with other carriers.

“We think we have an aircraft that is very well suited to this use,” he said. “It is an airplane that is very efficient for the unique flying that we do, with so many flights of just 100 to 200 miles. This is a unique market.”

Ingram joined Hawaiian in 2005 as chief financial officer and ascended to the top position in February of last year. He spent 11 years with AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines, before he joined Hawaiian.

Unsurprisingly, he recently defended Hawaiian’s fare structure at a Kauai Chamber of Commerce luncheon, noting that airline costs have been sent on an upward spiral by the price of jet fuel and general operating costs. He said Hawaiian seeks to even out the burden of high fares by injecting strategies that vary the prices of tickets by time of day flown and other factors.

“Some of our success, frankly, is really just understanding the unique needs of our travelers,” he said.

Not so well-known, for example, he said, are Hawaiian’s informal process of authorizing compassionate fare reductions for people with medical or personal crises and for students — mostly school teams and groups that must travel between islands for games, conferences and competitions. Hawaiian, he said, well understands that, for people with medical problems, for example, there is no alternative to flying to Honolulu for advanced care.

“As I remind people and our team, Hawaiian Airlines is a very competitive airline and we compete with American, Delta and United,” he said, “the three largest airlines in the world. We do that very well and we don’t need to copy anyone else.”

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Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident, journalist and furniture-maker, and a former public relations executive who writes frequently for The Garden Island.

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