LIHU‘E — COVID-19 or no COVID-19, some airlines on Thursday continued to market travel to Kaua‘i aggressively, with one-way fares between Lihu‘e and Seattle going for just $159 on the Alaska Airlines website and $129 on Southwest Airlines.
And while both of those carriers said they expect to reduce flight frequency to Lihu‘e soon, both have apparently put the step off until early next month.
American Airlines and Delta Airlines did not respond to calls and emails asking them to clarify their intentions in terms of continuing to fly to Kaua‘i during the COVID-19 crisis.
At Delta, website copy continued to try to lure passengers to Hawai‘i. “Fly with Delta to get the best fare guarantee and a superior experience that you can’t get on just any airline.” At American, website copy online Thursday continued a promotion of vacation packages through April 15.
Meanwhile, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority said the actual number of passengers arriving at all airports in Hawai‘i had dropped dramatically since March 16. Statewide, according to HTA, passenger arrivals declined by about 87%, from 20,485 on March 16 to 4,131 on Tuesday, the last date for which the agency published figures on its website.
For Kaua‘i, the passenger volume decline was even more dramatic, reflecting a fall of more than 98%, from 1,236 on March 16 to just 38 on Tuesday.
“As far as we know,” said Marisa Yamane, director of communications and public relations for the agency, “the majority of the flights into our state are now canceled or being canceled.”
Mayor Derek Kawakami said, “Despite low airfares being advertised, I hope visitors understand that visiting Hawai‘i at this time will come at the cost of a 14-day mandatory quarantine, per an order from Governor David Ige.
“That means any visitor who arrives on our island will go directly to a hotel room and cannot leave that room for 14 days unless it’s a medical emergency or to get back on a plane to return home. Any food or supplies needed throughout the duration of those two weeks will require delivery.
“Guests cannot leave the hotel room to walk around the property, or visit the pool or beach, or any other outdoor activity. And Kaua‘i police officers will be helping us to enforce the mandatory quarantine.
“So anyone tempted by these cheap deals should realize it’s not worth it.”
The drop in actual passenger arrivals coincides with imposition of the state’s new requirement, which went into effect Thursday, requiring that visitors self-quarantine for 14 days in their hotel rooms or other accommodations after they arrive.
While the drop-off was dramatic, Southwest, Alaska and United Airlines said they were still operating Hawai‘i flight schedules. In Alaska’s case, the decision came with aggressive promotion tactics.
“Enjoy aloha every day as you visit historic landmarks and learn about the rich culture of the islands,” read copy on the Alaska Airlines website. “Watch whales and walk volcano rims. Explore off-the-beaten-path destinations, from hidden beaches to small island towns. Soak up the sun while you learn to surf, snorkel, or kayak. When evening falls, you can enjoy world-class dining and nightlife.”
Quickly, however, various airline public-relations personnel tried to tamp down the impression that the carriers continue to heavily market Hawai‘i destinations.
At Southwest, spokesperson Brad Hawkins said the airline now plans to discontinue most service to Hawai‘i on April 5. He said the carrier will reduce its schedule to two flights per day between Oakland and Honolulu.
Hawkins said Southwest would then use the two aircraft making the daily flights to establish and maintain “limited inter-island service at the request of the state.”
On Thursday morning, Southwest’s website offered one-way fares between Oakland and Lihu‘e of as little as $154 each way for departures on Sunday — before Southwest’s self-imposed scheduled reduction goes into effect — and return on the hypothetical date of April 12.
“The prices are not about trying to get visitors over there,” Hawkins said in a phone interview. “They’re about making it affordable for people to move about for essential travel.” He said Southwest would operate two flights a day between Lihu‘e and Honolulu.
The Oakland-Honolulu nonstops, he said, “enable the interisland essential service. The other thing we’re trying to do is get our cargo capabilities plussed up.” That decision appeared to reflect steps taken by a variety of air carriers around the world to start using idled passenger planes to move cargo.
Southwest’s strategy appeared to mirror that of Hawaiian Airlines, which announced earlier this week that it was suspending its entire schedule except for one daily round trip between Los Angeles and Honolulu. Hawaiian said it would maintain a reduced schedule of inter-island flights, on which it uses smaller Boeing 717 jetliners.
At Alaska, spokesperson Daniel Chun said, “the COVID-19 situation has been quickly changing and evolving here in Hawai‘i, as it has been around the world. The health and safety of our guests, employees and communities is our highest priority.”
He said Alaska had worked over the past week to reach every passenger scheduled for Hawai‘i travel to “encourage them to adjust their travel plans.” Chun said Alaska will be “evaluating” its current schedule between now and March 31. From April 1 to April 8, he said, Alaska will cut its Lihu‘e schedule to just one flight per day, from Seattle, “to provide a minimal level of service for those who have essential travel or need to return to or from Kaua‘i.”
Starting April 9, he said Alaska will suspend all Kaua‘i flights.
“Any low fares you are seeing online now are to help get people back to where they need to be — back home to Kaua‘i or back home to the continental United States, before these reductions in service start next week.”
At United Airlines, a spokesperson said an inquiry from The Garden Island about United’s fare sale and service strategy involves “things we generally don’t comment on.” However, she said United has cuts is overall Hawai‘i service by 70%, including flights from the mainland to Honolulu. She said United has already reduced its service from the mainland to Lihu‘e to one flight per day.
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident, furniture-maker, journalist and retired public relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.