It was the hugely long-winded and controversial Transpacific route case of the 1960s that finally opened up the Hawaiian market to other players besides Pan Am. This passed through three Presidents, and many versions, but when it was finally completed (nine years after the initial certification of Western) multiple trunk airlines had gained access to the Hawaiian market. From Pan Am alone there was now Western, Braniff, Continental, TWA, United and Northwest flying routes to Honolulu.
The timing coincided with the introduction of widebodies, and so after brief stints with DC-8s and 707s they all threw their new 747s and DC-10s onto the routes. Predictably, there were far too many seats and not as much money as expected.
Things had quietened somewhat by the late 1970s, but deregulation of the airlines, in 1978, started a second wave of competition as newcomers entered the market convinced that there was new opportunity and profit to be found connecting the 50th state to the mainland. One of these newcomers was The Hawaii Express.
The new airline was founded by Michael Hartley, an entrepreneur and long-time Hawaiian resident with some form in the aviation industry. He had started a small commuter airline, Island Pacific Air (later renamed Air Hawaii), in 1973 and over five years grew it to an eight aircraft operation. Operating as the President and CEO he was actively involved in all of its operations and sold on the airline in 1978.
Hartley also acquired a Fixed Base Operator called Aviation Center in 1974, selling it in 1978, and began a certified repair station Aero Co, Inc in 1978, which was sold in 1979. The idea for Hawaii Express apparently came to him whilst he was sitting on the beach, and although on the face of it a good idea it clearly hadn’t been thought through fully.
The plan was to operate low-cost high-capacity trips, initially connecting Los Angeles and Honolulu. The new company put its paper work into the C.A.B on April 30, 1982 proposing the use of a Boeing 747-100 for a single daily rotation.
The operating model of Hawaii Express wasn’t necessarily anything special since Pacific East Air was also in the process of starting operations on the same route. It used several leased DC-8s and began flying in June 1982 offering $99 one-way fares. In fact, it was ultimately able to grow larger than Hawaii Express but it suffered a similar fate, collapsing in May 1984.
Additionally, the long-time supplemental airline World Airways was already operating flights on the LAX-HNL route and didn’t take kindly to Hartley’s new airline. It unsuccessfully petitioned the C.A.B to stop the airline and fine it for selling tickets prior to certification. With certification achieved The Hawaii Express was able to start its operations on schedule in August 1982.
The equipment selected for start-up was a single Boeing 747-143, leased from Boeing, originally delivered as Alitalia’s first 747 I-DEMA ‘Neil Armstrong’ in May 1970. In fact, it was only the 36th 747 off the production line. Rechristened as N355AS and named ‘Jason Everest’ the aircraft was fitted out in an impressively cramped 491 seat single class configuration. This high-density layout allowed the airline to advertise start-up fares from $89.95 one way. The livery was colourful and featured a rainbow cheatline moving up onto a mango coloured tail.
The 747’s lease was over $4.6 million per year but this included spares and engines. Maintenance would be undertaken by TWA and if the aircraft went tech then a backup would be provided by Transamerica. The schedule was a 10am departure from Los Angeles with the return from Honolulu in the early afternoon. Operations began on schedule on August 20, 1982.
The Hawaii Express was able to make use of the labour market to acquire most of its pilots from the recently bankrupt Braniff International. Many of the flight attendants were also on furlough from other airlines and were attracted to The Hawaii Express by the high immediate seniority, relatively low hours per month and the Hawaiian beaches!
The Hawaii Express initially appeared to have found a niche and struck a chord with travellers. It did make getting to the islands fun and affordable and load factors were good. This was helped by a relationship with the young David Neeleman (later of Morris Air and JetBlue) who had started running his Salt Lake City based travel company from his parent’s home and now employed 20 people. He was able to pay cash in advance and in return got great room rates and blocked booked seats on The Hawaii Express.
The first season was a success but the 747 was a little large, costly and inflexible to operate. Its lease was terminated in June 1983 and it was replaced by a pair of smaller more versatile Douglas DC-10-10s. Both were former Western Airlines machines of 1973/74 vintage that had been sold to International Air Leases in mid-1981. Both had seen service with Capitol Air and ironically one of them had even been sub-leased to The Hawaii Express’ competitor Pacific East Air.
The DC-10s were cheaper to operate and allowed the route frequency to increase from a single daily to three times daily service. Sadly, although an improvement on the 747 the Tens would not be enough to save the airline. They did however introduce the new Pineapple logo on the tail.
The one glaring omission in The Hawaii Express business plan was the competitive response of the other airlines on the LAX-HNL route. The Hawaii Express’ initial success had alerted other carriers and they started a fare war the startup could hardly compete against. Airlines like Western and United could easily absorb losses on the route temporarily due to their large networks. The Hawaii Express with just a single route and limited funds could not do so. The airline began to lose money and the planned San Francisco to Honolulu service was shelved.
The airline’s board grew unhappy with Hartley and he was ousted. This led to a suicidal attempt to beat the majors at their own game as The Hawaii Express lowered its fares even further. It never had a chance and the money ran out on December 20, 1983 when the carrier suspended operations. Unfortunately for the fledgling and successful travel business of David Neeleman the collapse of the airline also bankrupted his organisation.
Despite the rough end to his airline Michael Hartley was undaunted and organised a new airline known more simply as Air Hawaii. He managed to keep hold of both the DC-10s from his previous venture and operations advertised as "High Class, Low Fares" began on November 22, 1985. Services predictably connected Honolulu to Los Angeles and San Francisco, but despite offering connections at either end (with Mid-Pacific and PSA respectively) and operating during the busy tourist season the airline survived for only three months before shutting down on February 19, 1986.
Hartley would go on to form the travel agency Cheap Tickets and he surfed the dotcom boom to sell it for $50 million in 1999.
The Hawaii Express itself was one of several startup airline attempts that foundered on its inability to compete against the incumbent airlines that were capable of sustaining losses for time periods the startups could not weather. Nonetheless its colourful style and service have allowed it to survive in the memory longer than other failed Hawaiian routed carriers such as Pacific East Air.
Davies, R.E.G. Airlines of the USA since 1914
Norwood, T. Deregulation Knockouts Round One
Wynbrandt, J. Flying High: How JetBlue Founder and CEO David Neeleman Beats the Competition
Expo Aviation: Grounded: The Hawaii Express. Youtube
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: