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Vol.12, No. 5
October/November 2009


Steady As She Goes 

story by Paul Wood
photos by Dana Edmunds
Eighty years in business—that’s a remarkable achievement for any company. But for an airline, it’s stunning. In 1929, the year a little venture that came to be known as Hawaiian Airlines booked its first inter-island passengers, the prop-driven monoplane was still a novelty. Technology has advanced, but fundamental conditions are the same: If you’re going to fly, expect turbulence.


The past year was particularly difficult for all airlines—eleven domestic carriers filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008, and nine shut down altogether. Hawaiian (HAL) was not one. How this company managed to remain buoyant during such a year, turn a profit and retain its number-one position in both service and safety is a story of resilience and spirit. Between April 2008 and April 2009, HAL not only survived, but also sharpened its identity, boosted its morale and pursued its transformation from regional island-hopper to major international carrier.


The changes that occurred during this tumultuous year have been a long time coming. For the past three decades (ever since federal deregulation), the airline industry has been growing ever more Darwinian—fiercely competitive while subject to volatile booms and busts. Since 2000 the airline companies of the United States, taken as a whole, have lost more than $33 billion, which is almost twice their accumulated profits from 1938 to 1999. More than 100,000 pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, ticket agents, cargo handlers and other airline workers have lost their jobs since 2001, and more than 100 communities lost air service during the past decade.


Hawaiian, in contrast, took the major step of replacing its entire inter-island fleet with thirteen new Boeing 717-200 aircraft in 2001. That year it also began replacing its trans-Pacific fleet with new Boeing 767-300 aircraft—another bold move for a small airline given the lingering effects of 9/11. While the company was forced to do layoffs in 2001, these were minimal and by 2002 the airline was hiring again. And Hawaiian was winning accolades for its service: It was the number-one on-time airline in the nation from November 2003 to November 2006, when its rival Aloha Air edged past. (Hawaiian returned to the top spot in 2007 with an on-time arrival rate of 94.6 percent.) Such facts indicate a basically healthy, well-run airline company—but it took every skill and resource the airline possessed to withstand the challenges that 2008 would bring.