Issue 7.5: October/November 2004

Hawaiian At Heart

story by Paul Devlin Wood
art by Alex Preiss

You find the word "Hawaiian" used all over the world, and sometimes in the weirdest ways. I remember one wintertime street in Geneva, Switzerland—dark and cold as a walk-in freezer with two feet of gray snow on the medieval cobblestones—where I saw a stencil sign in the window: "Hawaiian Tiki Lounge." The place was closed and forlorn, but it was "Hawaiian."

Here in the Islands, we use the word more carefully. When we apply it to a person, we mean someone who is native, original, rooted, someone who expresses traditional island values, someone who belongs to and cares for an ‘ohana—an extended but close-knit family. If a business adopts the term, we expect all of this from it. We expect a company that could occur nowhere else in the world.

Hawaiian Airlines is a perfect example. Now seventy-five years old, the company simply cannot be separated from the people and culture of the Islands. Its 3,200 employees come from every neighborhood and every ethnic background; they drive the company. When calamity strikes, they respond. When economic opportunity arises, they boost it. When it’s time to celebrate, they join the parade. Like good members of the ‘ohana, they care for the whole. How could it be otherwise? They’re Hawaiian!

To find such community rootedness in a large corporation is not so strange when you consider Hawaii’s unique situation and the real weight of a seventy-five-year history. Back in 1929, when a company then called "Inter-Island Airways" started providing regular service to all six major islands—using a fleet consisting mostly of two pontoon-equipped amphibian planes that carried eight passengers each—modern Hawaii was very young. The overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy was still a recent memory. Talking movies had just started flickering on the screen of the Hawaii Theatre, and flying machines were new—newer than cell phones are to us. The John Rodgers Airport (now called "Honolulu International") had just been dedicated the year before.

Hawaii and Hawaiian Airlines grew up together. No wonder they think alike.


In the mid-1970s, the Polynesian Voyaging Society helped spark a Hawaiian cultural renaissance by building the Hokule‘a, a replica of an early double-hulled voyaging canoe, and then sailing her from the Big Island to Tahiti. Using the same kind of gear, food and navigation technology as the ancients, PVS both proved and revived the prowess of the forebears. Everywhere Hokule‘a has traveled—throughout Hawaii and from New Zealand to the Pacific Northwest—she has inspired the revival of ancient technologies, provoked reforestation projects and continued to resonate as the reigning symbol of the rebirth of Hawaiian culture.

There’s one thing Hokule‘a has that her ancestors lacked: back-up support from a fleet of jets.

Hawaiian Airlines has been a guardian angel of the PVS since the society’s inception over twenty-five years ago, just one example of the airline’s commitment to native Hawaiian culture. "Our company has this big stamp on it that says ‘Hawaiian,’" says Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, director of Hawaiian Air’s community and government relations. Debbie joined the company right about the time that Hokule‘a first caught wind in its sails, and her job is to see that the company actively cares about its community. "Being part-Hawaiian, I take it kind of personal, about being part of this place," Debbie says. "We have to work at preserving and protecting the culture." In other words, we have to malama the culture.

For Hokule‘a, Hawaiian provides many services. It transports crew members. (After a thirty-day ocean crossing, most modern people have to get back to their jobs.) And it moves cargo. Paige Barber, a former president of PVS, recalls that her early assignment was to revive the dried-food diet of the early voyagers. To help with that, Hawaiian Air transported huge fish-drying boxes to the Kona Billfish Tournament, ready for donations from anglers. "We dried 10,000 pounds of fish," remembers Paige.

From the get-go, Hawaiian Airlines has been a leading sponsor of the Merrie Monarch Festival, the world’s biggest hula fest, and it is also a leading sponsor of the Celebration of the Arts, a huge and free Hawaiian culture program put on by the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua. Clifford Nae‘ole, the resort’s Hawaiian cultural advisor, says of Hawaiian Air: "They give me, annually, the ability to bring in from all over the state the finest artists, kumu hula, cultural practitioners and educators. They realize that Hawaii will remain the world-class destination that it is only by making sure that the host and the hosted are connected."

In recent years, Hawaiian Airlines has rescued two of the Islands’ most venerable expressions of cultural pride: the Kamehameha Day parade and the Aloha Festivals. For the former, the company provides not only tickets and cargo help (plumeria flowers from Moloka‘i; lehua flowers from the Big Island) but also advertising and promotion as government funding has declined.

This same decline brought the Aloha Festivals to the brink of extinction last year. Moana Yee, who has run the Aloha Festivals’ office for over four decades, says, "Bailed us out. That’s exactly what Hawaiian Air did. It has always been a true supporter of Island culture."

"This might sound corny," said Paige Barber at the end of our conversation, "but I honestly feel that Hawaiian Airlines is very Hawaiian. In fact, we have prayed for Hawaiian Air. I want them to be around for another seventy-five years."


Symphony orchestras, even in the best of times, operate on very lean budgets. They have more players and sell fewer tickets than your average football team. So imagine the challenge faced every year by members of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, especially when they want to travel around the state with educational programs and community concerts. They can’t just rent a bus. They have to fly from island to island—fly not only themselves but also their tubas and bassoons, their bulky kettle drums and sensitive bass viols.

So, it’s quite significant that the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra nominated Hawaiian Airlines for recognition in last year’s National Philanthropy Day, and that Hawaiian was chosen as the state’s top philanthropic organization. Says Symphony president Steven Bloom, "Hawaiian Airlines has been one of our best and most key sponsors. They are the kind of company that will just do anything for us."

The best illustration of what Steven means can be seen in the Symphony’s Hawaiian Airlines Pops series. As the premiere sponsor of the series, you-know-who has brought in a wide array of global music stars (and crew and equipment). For example, rockers Michael McDonald and James Ingram. Jazz saxophonist Dave Koz. Yo-yo Ma. Rosemary Clooney. Steven is quick to add that airline employees also create teams for the annual Symphony Fun Run and get together to purchase tables for the yearly Symphony Ball.

Hawaiian Airlines—the company that moves us from island to island—has the power to promote Hawaii’s growing national and international reputation as a center for arts and culture in the Pacific region, to promote kilohana, or excellence. And it is doing that.

The Maui Film Festival is a good example. Five years ago Maui’s hard-driving movie maven Barry Rivers launched his challenge to Sundance and Telluride—the Maui Film Festival at Wailea. This year, thanks to assertive national promotion and excellent planning, the festival enjoyed live coverage on CNN and drew about 20,000 people, 60 percent of whom were visitors. Barry calls Hawaiian Airlines "the wind under the wings" of the festival: "They jumped on board even before the first festival happened. That says a lot about Hawaiian Air’s spirit."

Similar acknowledgements come from the Maui Writers Conference, which was recently picked as the world’s best such event by Writer’s Digest magazine. Each year the conference imports more than 120 industry figures—authors, agents, editors, screenwriters, producers, basically anyone with a finger on the button of the publishing world. Hawaiian Air has always made it possible for the conference to line up an array of talent. MWC marketing director Georja Skinner says, "It would be cost-prohibitive to bring in so many great instructors without the commitment of Hawaiian Airlines. They really put their money where their heart is."

Skinner is also the founder/director of the Hawaii Filmmakers Initiative, a four-year-old nonprofit that brings faculty from the USC School of Cinema to teach in Hawaii each summer. Here again, Hawaiian Air is a sponsor, helping to move faculty from California and students from the various islands. As in the other cases, the airline jumped in right from the start, trusting a good idea. Skinner puts it bluntly: "They are totally committed to nurturing the arts in Hawaii."


Folks elsewhere probably don’t realize the passion that the people of Hawaii have for athletics. Our visitor promotions may even give people the idea that we loll at the beach all day, but no way. We’re into sports. We have great year-round weather, and we like to be outside.

Our interest in athletic prowess goes back to the ancient Hawaiians, who valued ikaika—strength—and competed with great enthusiasm, often to the death. Later, in the plantation labor camps where diverse cultures mixed, sports had a way of bringing people together. That same kind of multicultural bonding takes place today in our schools. In fact, Hawaii may have a keener interest in high school sports than any other state in the nation. High school games—especially championships—make headlines and are broadcast live on radio and television.

Keith Amemiya is executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletics Association, the nonprofit governing body of high school athletics for the state. Keith tells me that our state has the highest number of different high school championships in the country, including unusual sports like judo, water polo and air riflery. Plus we have a lot of girls’ sports, even girls’ wrestling. And whenever they want to get together for a state competition, our high school athletes have the same problem as our symphony musicians—we live on islands. Your typical high school budget can’t afford to send sixty members of a football team from Maui to Oahu.

"Hawaiian Airlines has been one of the biggest supporters of Hawaii’s high school athletics by providing air transportation," says Keith. "All of us who are involved in high school athletics owe the airline a huge debt of gratitude." The company has supported the state football championship, and it is the title sponsor of both male and female state basketball championships.

The same dedication is true for our university athletic programs. Jim Donovan spent twenty years as associate athletic director for the University of Hawaii. He gives Hawaiian Air a lot of credit for the inspiring successes we’ve seen in recent years with women’s volleyball and men’s football. "Hawaiian Air was the first corporate sponsor UH ever had," says Jim. "We’re 2,500 miles away from the rest of the world, so we often lose perspective about ourselves. We think maybe they’re better than us. So when UH plays [top-ranked] Notre Dame and beats them, this sends a message to our keiki: We are just as good as everybody else. Hawaiian Air makes that possible."

Hawaiian Airlines supports international sporting competitions, like the Ironman Triathlon. It also supports the Pro Bowl, the National Football League’s annual all-star game. NFL senior director of special events Dave Wintergrass calls Hawaiian Airlines the Pro Bowl’s "premiere partner in the state of Hawaii. They understand the value of the event."

The value of the event includes the annual influx of approximately 20,000 visitors who contribute millions of dollars to the state economy. Also valuable are certain immeasurables—for example, the prestige and pride derived from hosting champions and the NFL’s generous support of many charitable causes in Hawaii, including the Hawaii High School Athletic Association led by Keith Amemiya.

"Hawaiian Air is a key player," Wintergrass says. "We look forward to many more years together.


In 1992, Hurricane Iniki —moving with dreadful slowness and with the highest wind speed ever recorded in U.S. history—passed directly over Kauai. The rest of us in the Islands watched the satellite images on television with a sense of helplessness and awe. It looked as though a big hand was very deliberately wiping a speck of dirt off a window. We lost all contact with the island.

The next day, Hawaiian Air Captain Rick White was the first commercial pilot to reach the island. His fly-by revealed unbelievable damage: helicopters inverted; every window in the FAA control tower blown out; giant light poles twisted like wire.

Captain White was carrying what the island now needed more than anything: generators. Once on the ground, he rolled up his sleeves and started doing anything necessary—loading baggage, securing water and supplies for the emergency medical technicians, then returning to Honolulu for medical supplies and baby formula desperately needed by Wilcox Hospital.

In those times of civic emergency, the people of Hawaiian Air have always been among the first and most willing to kokua—to pitch in, to help, often to rescue. This is a responsibility that you assume when you are the Hawaiian air service.

Rescue missions are not restricted to the home islands. Hawaiian’s pilots frequently set out for other Pacific islands loaded with relief supplies, food and medicine. In fact, the range of Hawaiian Air’s responsibility has grown remarkably since those first days of pontoon-borne island-hopping. Starting in 1983, and for a period lasting about fifteen years, Hawaiian’s flight routes covered the entire globe. This was the period when Hawaiian provided charters that carried United Nations peacekeepers and U.S. troops to the hotspots of the planet.

Retired pilot Jim Davis now manages the Hilo Airport. His first charter mission for Hawaiian involved flying a plane loaded with relief supplies to Fiji, which had just been hit by a hurricane. There he picked up 125 Fijian peacekeepers and took them to Egypt via Singapore, Sri Lanka and Abu Dhabi. This was an exciting time for airline employees, who found themselves inventing flight plans, learning where to find the cheapest jet fuel in the Middle East, staying at bases in Niagara Falls and Atlantic City, and taking the Hawaiian spirit around the world. "The adventure, my friend, was unbelievable," says Davis. "It drew us very close together. We were a tight-knit family."

The days of flying rescue missions beyond the Pacific have passed for now, but the tight-knit family feeling continues to be the essence of the company. That’s why nearly 200 employees turned out this year for the Heart Walk, a fundraiser for the state chapter of the American Heart Association, and comparable numbers participated in the Charity Walk and the Great Aloha Run.

This spirit of kokua happens inside the company, too. The best example is the Wings of Hope program, a nonprofit charitable organization created by and for the 900 flight attendants of Hawaiian Airlines. For years, whenever a flight attendant had a dire personal crisis, his or her co-workers would start raising money by any means—bake sales, chili sales, putting out a jar for loose change. But this ad hoc approach changed a few years ago when one flight attendant received the shocking news that she had only six weeks to live. When she went to Nahoku Alo, the Honolulu base manager, with her urgent situation, Nahoku launched a huge campaign to help her. But the poignant problem of time taught them all a lesson. Says Nahoku, "We thought, instead of scrambling every time an urgent situation comes up, why not have a fund already created? That way we can respond immediately."

Now, since 1999, the Hawaiian Air flight attendants operate their own nonprofit organization that fundraises and maintains a rescue treasury for those in need. At this writing, the entire company is planning to adopt the Wings of Hope model so that emergency help will be available to all 3,200 employees.

Kokua. That’s Hawaiian.