Issue 17.5: October/November 2014

Casting the Net

Story By: Roland Gilmore

 

In his aloha shirt and weathered baseball cap, Richard “Rick” Rogers doesn’t quite fit the mold of an archivist. In fact, there’s not a lot about him that fits any mold: A commercial pilot—he flew for Hawaiian Airlines from 1987 through his retirement in 2010—he’s also a diver, maritime researcher, historian, writer and illustrator. At various times he’s also made his living as a farmer, fisherman, flight instructor and small business owner.

 

But those are all stories for another time­—for now let’s get back to the pilot/archivist, which is the reason I’m visiting him today. Back in 2009, having heard that Rick was something of a “history nut” (Rick’s words), Hawaiian Airlines CEO Mark Dunkerley contacted him with a request to do some research on the company’s 1929 Bellanca CH-300. This was the plane that the airline’s founder, Stanley Kennedy Sr., had used to introduce Hawai‘i residents to flight. Five years ago, as part of the airline’s eightieth anniversary, the plane was being fully restored. One thing led to another, and Rick ultimately volunteered to bring order to the company’s chaotic collection of photographs, films, annual reports, advertising materials, internal correspondence and assorted memorabilia. In his spare time he pulled everything together into a well-organized collection and in the process became the company’s official archivist. Through that immersion he has also become one of the pre-eminent authorities on Hawaiian Airlines’ history. And so we met to talk about a distinct segment of that history: the airline’s expansion beyond interisland service.

 

These days it is hard to imagine that Hawaiian Airlines ever struggled to enlarge its route map. In the last three years alone, the airline has added Japan, South Korea, China and New Zealand to an international schedule that already included Australia, American Samoa and Tahiti. The airline now also offers nonstop service to Hawai‘i from more US gateway cities (eleven) than any other airline. Of course, these additions did not occur overnight, but compared with the airline’s early attempts to fly beyond the Hawaiian Islands, they have come at lightning speed: Though it began flying passengers within the Islands in 1929 as InterIsland Airways, Hawaiian Airlines’ first scheduled passenger flights to the continental United States didn’t take place until 1985, with scheduled international flights (to Tahiti and the Cook Islands) following two years later. The effort to establish those first flights spanned more than forty years and three generations of aircraft.

 

“Our history of trans-Pacific and international flight is actually three different stories,” says Rick. “Stan Kennedy Sr. made the first application for international routes with the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in 1944—that’s how early this got started.” So early, in fact, that one of Kennedy’s proposed destinations, Manila, included stops on Palau and Chuuk (then known as Truk), neither of which had yet been liberated from Japan—this was a year before the war ended. When the Honolulu Advertiser first wrote of Kennedy’s plan in its July 10, 1944, edition, the story noted that Saipan—“whose conquest United States troops completed Saturday”—would be part of this same route. Another proposed route, to Shanghai, would include stops at Midway and Tokyo.

 

The challenges Kennedy faced were not limited to the war. Every new route within the United States required approval of the CAB, which also regulated pricing. Hawai‘i was still a territory, with congressional representation limited to a single nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives. An Island-based airline simply couldn’t wield the same kind of bureaucratic influence as those based on the continent. Kennedy was a visionary and not one to give up easily. Writing about this era in Wings of History: Hawaii’s Incomparable Airlines, historian Peter Forman notes that in the first year of the effort, Hawaiian spent more than $80,000 to secure new routes, as compared with a $75,000 profit that year. By 1947 the total spent was more than $100,000.

 

It was a lot of traveling back and forth to Washington, a lot of expense and a lot of paperwork,” says Rick. “We’d almost get it and then someone would object—it was the heavyweights like United and Pan Am—and we’d have to start from square one. So in 1947 the board of directors called a stop to it. Stan was pretty down, and you kind of notice it in the company: The advertising became pretty boring for the next few years. It was like the wind had been taken out of our sails.”

 


 
 

In 1952 the airline upgraded to the Convair, a twin-engine prop plane that offered the first pressurized, air-conditioned cabin. Then in 1955 Kennedy retired from his post as president of the airline and was succeeded by 37-year-old Art Lewis. “He was the youngest airline executive in the United States,” continues Rick. “Yale guy, with a lot of new ideas. He brought in Jack Tobin Sr., an ad guy, to be his vice president of sales and service, and by 1958 they had shaken things up.”

 

It was in 1958 that the airline took delivery of the first of four long-range, four-engine DC-6 planes and established a Military Air Transport Service (MATS) contract to fly from military bases on the West Coast to Honolulu, Midway, Wake and Japan. “The idea,” says Rick, “was to get into scheduled services. So it was kind of a rerun of what had been started fourteen years earlier, but this time we were trying to pick up where the clipper ships had dropped off: We were trying to do a San Francisco-Honolulu-Manila-Singapore route.”

 

The airline also began doing civilian charters, flying tourists in from Los Angeles to Honolulu, among others. During this period Hawaiian was not only competing against big guns like United, Pan Am and Continental, but now also had Aloha Airlines to contend with. Founded in 1946 as Trans-Pacific Airlines, or TPA, the company had changed its name to Aloha Airlines in 1958. From the start TPA was competing with Hawaiian for interisland passengers and freight. “By 1960,” says Rick, “it was the same story again: In the archives we have correspondence from the CAB saying, more or less, ‘You’re going to get the approval, it’s a done deal, don’t worry about it.’” But the process dragged on, and ultimately Hawaiian’s board of directors again put a stop to it.

In 1966 the airline took one last shot, this time with the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Following World War II, much of Micronesia came under a United Nations trusteeship—the Trust Territory—which remained in effect from 1946 through 1986 as the various island nations underwent the decolonization and self-determination process. The Trust Territory was administered by the United States and included the islands that the airline had previously sought to add to its route schedule back in 1944. Ultimately the airline lost this bid to Continental, which established Air Micronesia in 1968. Following this disappointment, in terms of scheduled passenger service beyond Hawai‘i’s shores at least, the airline went all but dormant for nearly twenty years.

Ultimately, it took an act of Congress to help Hawaiian establish its overseas routes. The CAB had over the decades proved to be a bureaucratic quagmire, with route approval often taking years and almost always favoring the largest carriers. In 1978 the Airline Deregulation Act was passed, which among other things mandated a multi-year phase-out of the CAB. From that point forward, US airlines were in essence allowed to fly any domestic route they chose and to set whatever prices they wanted. The CAB closed for good on January 1, 1985. 

This phase-out coincided with more change at Hawaiian. In 1984, after a good deal of internal turmoil, the airline began to expand again. Three long-range DC-8 jets were added to the fleet that year, and military and civilian charter services resumed. In hindsight the demise of the CAB and the addition of the first scheduled service to Los Angeles (1985), Seattle and San Francisco (both in 1986) seem something of an anticlimax. But combined with its international charter service and the first of its scheduled passenger flights to Tahiti and the Cook Islands (1987), Hawaiian Airlines had become a truly global airline. Hawaiian’s planes were literally all over the planet, and it was at times a wild ride.


 

“In those days it was pretty much ‘You call, we haul,’” recalls Bernie Watson, who was a pilot with Hawaiian from 1970 until his retirement in 2003. At one point Bernie literally flew around the world on Hawaiian’s charter routes, departing Honolulu and making stops in Philadelphia, Naples, Athens, Bahrain and Diego Garcia before switching planes and flying on to the Philippines, Guam and then back to Honolulu. He also flew on the airline’s earliest charters for the United Nations peacekeeping force. “For the very first flight, we flew down to Nadi, Fiji, and picked up the troops there. Then we flew from there to Singapore and changed crews. Because we were unknown in the area, everything had to be paid for with cash—hotels for the crews, fueling, catering, everything—so I was carrying about $40,000. From Singapore we flew to Oman, then up into the Sinai Desert, where we unloaded the troops and picked up others for the return flight, then to Cairo and back to Singapore. The rest of the crew switched off the plane there, but I stayed on because I had to go back to Fiji to pay for the rest of it. We did quite a few of those runs, though thankfully after that first one they started taking our checks.”

These days the ability of airlines to fly between countries is governed by bilateral air service agreements, which are essentially international trade agreements. Most of these agreements allow airlines to operate whatever routes they believe are commercially sensible, though in some instances the number of available routes and frequencies is limited. In these latter cases the airlines of one country submit applications to their home government, which then selects the winners and informs the other country.

Hawaiian Airlines’ current phase of global expansion began in 2007. At the time the airline was already flying to Sydney and planning to add a route to Manila. New Airbus A-330s were ordered, with the first set to be delivered in 2012.

“One of the curiosities about this business is that you buy airplanes that will be with you for twenty-five years, and with the lead time they won’t be delivered for five to seven years,” says Hawaiian Airlines CEO Mark Dunkerley. “So you’re really peering into the murky depths of the uncertain future and making some very substantial bets. Well, we did that, and we said, ‘Starting in 2010 and over the next decade, we will grow our international network; there will be a fairly steady cadence of one to two routes per year.’ And we committed to that in early 2008.”

The new Manila route came online in April 2008—and then, in the fall of that year, came the global financial crisis. Having already placed its bet on international expansion, the airline made the extraordinary decision to double down. “Airlines were taking all kinds of steps to preserve their businesses, including cutting back dramatically,” Mark continues. “The markets looked terrible at that moment, but we believed that there would be a short window between when they started to get better and when the other airlines could react. So while others were contacting Boeing and Airbus and asking that they delay delivery of new planes, we were doing just the opposite: We asked Airbus if they could move our planes forward. And that brought out the terrific explosion of new routes between 2010 and 2013—it was a direct result of sitting around in late 2008 and early 2009 and saying, ‘Now is the time to hit the accelerator.’”

Beyond Beijing, which launched in April of this year, the airline isn’t saying where it will be flying next. But with somewhere in the range of a dozen new routes under consideration and new planes still to be delivered, don’t expect the foot to come off the accelerator any time soon.