Tourism officials to work with airlines to preserve airlift

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A senior official with the Hawaii Tourism Authority will meet with United Airlines executives this week, just as United is preparing to scale back its nonstop from Washington D.C.

Few state officials have more critical assignments than David Uchiyama, vice president for brand management of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, whose job includes regular meetings with airline executives to hear their plans and concerns and to ask how Hawaii can help.

"We are very sensitive about keeping and improving our connectivity not just for tourism but for our residents, as well as helping develop other commerce," Uchiyama said in an email from the road.

Hawaii air connections, the most in years, are increasingly vulnerable to cutbacks if they don't fly full enough, so Hawaii officials are working with the airlines to help them prosper.

Uchiyama is flying to Chicago for a meeting Wednesday with United Airlines executives, gving him a timely opportunity to make sure United officials know that Hawaii tourism marketers, including private partners like hoteliers and attractions, sometimes do targeted marketing with the express intention of helping airlines improve yields on new routes. He was in Atlanta Monday for meetings at Delta Air Lines headquarters.

HawaiiNewsNow reported Monday that United Airlines has decided to cut back its daily D.C. nonstop to once a week at the end of the summer. Airlines typically do not announce cutbacks. The information was simply fed into the reservations computer network all the travel agents use.

The news came just days after Allegiant Travel decided to call all but two of its new Hawaii routes "seasonal" and stop them at the end of the summer. Only the Las Vegas and Bellingham, Wash., routes will fly past then.

A source in the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau, the private entity that holds the tourism authority contract for marketing Hawaii to North America, said, "We are working with both these carriers to reassess their deployment," and pointed out that while the Washington D.C. route proved to be highly seasonal, "the Washington area has a huge population and they don't all work inside the Beltway," meaning, for the federal government, which has curtailed business travel.

The daily nonstop from Washington Dulles, in the Virginia suburbs of the nation's capital, has been flying far from empty. Even in slack periods it has usually been better than 70 percent full, and in peak periods it has been profitable. But airlines operate on very tight margins nowadays, when jet fuel bills often exceed payroll, and one or two full-price seats can make the difference between profit and loss on a flight.

In evaluating new service like the UAL nonstop from D.C. and the Hawaiian Airlines "Flight Five-0" service to New York JFK, both of which started last June, airline number crunchers have to consider not merely the cost of fuel and the number of seats but also the fares charged.

"When they started they were charging about the same to go to New York as to California," noted Thom Nulty, former Executive Vice President of Aloha Airlines, about the Hawaiian service to New York. "Hawaii has the best product but there is the travel time and cost factor. Selling East Coast people on Hawaii is a hard sell."

Washington D.C. has traditionally been a good source of Hawaii visitors, in part because more than 100,000 military personnel in Washington have Hawaii ties after deployments in the islands. Despite its reputation as the company town for the federal government, Washington is also a large employment center for Internet backbone providers and biotech research enterprises.

United Airlines flies more seats to Hawaii than most carriers, and is developing Big Island tourism with its LAX flghts to Hilo, the only direct West Coast flights to the volcano side of the Big Island by any airline.

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