HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - United Continental announced Wednesday the company will resume direct flights from the West Coast to Hilo International Airport beginning next June.
United Airlines last flew to Hilo in 1986, and almost all transpacific flights to the Big Island since then have been to Kona, shifting a great deal of Hawaii County's economic activity from its east to its west side.
The Hilo airport, once the main airport for the island, is now vastly underutilized, and Hilo hotels routinely run at much lower occupancy rates than resorts on the Kona-Kohala coast, even though Hilo is a more convenient staging area for visits to Volcanoes park.
"We are excited to provide customers the only direct flights to Hilo from the mainland," Jim Compton, executive vice president and chief revenue officer of United Continental Holdings Inc., said in a statement.
Chicago-based United has served Hawaii ever since it was founded and flew more seats to the state than any other carrier even before merging this year with Houston-based Continental. The new Hilo service will actually be offered from the Continental Airlines side of the company, using 160-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft with 16 seats reserved for first class.
The service, to begin June 9, will include daily flights from Los Angeles and Saturday-only flights from San Francisco. The westbound flights will leave LAX and SFO in the late afternoon and arrive early evening, Hawaii time; the eastbound returns will be redeyes.
"The addition of the two routes is welcome news for Hawaii Island and the entire state," said Mike McCartney, president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, "and a result of the momentum established by our tourism industry."
"Hilo has demonstrated its value as a premier visitor destination with nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival as featured attractions," said Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi.
The Big Island Visitors Bureau estimated that the new service could bring 40,000 more visitors a year. This month, when Big Island arrivals have been running 30% higher than the same time last year, the state's largest island has still averaged fewer than 1,000 visitor arrivals a day.
Continental has a hub in Los Angeles; United in both Los Angeles and San Francisco; and the timing of the flights will work with connects to a variety of cities farther east.