Hawaii is a very popular place to visit. It’s also a very remote set of islands. That makes it highly susceptible to importation of SARS-CoV-2, but also easier to restrict entry to than, say, California. Hawaii took the logical step of quarantining all arrivals from the mainland US for quite a few months in 2020, but then in October instituted a “Safe Travels” program that allowed visitors to skip quarantine with a negative test.
Many airlines are now adding service to the islands and looking very bullish about demand to go there especially this coming summer. So we thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the Flightradar24 tracking data to Hawaii shows over the past year and a bit. On the whole, after a big dip, it looks to be a positive picture so far this year. Here’s what air traffic to Hawaii is looking like.
A unique trajectory for a unique destination
Overall traffic between the mainland US and Hawaii to some extent mirrors global flight traffic as a whole, but with two distinctions. First, the summer bounce-back in 2020 was not as high as in many other places. This was no doubt because Hawaii still had a mandatory quarantine for arrivals. Instead, the bump in traffic came once Hawaii instituted a testing regimen which allowed visitors to skip quarantine. That was crucial, for obvious reasons. Second, traffic in the earlier part of 2021 stayed relatively stable, and has ever since. All while in much of the world there was a significant dip in flights after the fresh scares around new mutations of the virus.
For now, it’s looking good for flights to Hawaii – and it would seem there’s strong demand to go there among Americans who are ready to venture out, while much international travel remains off-limits.
Which island saw the steepest drop in flights?
Honolulu (HNL) continued to see a relatively high number of flights compared to the Hawaii’s second busiest airport, Maui (OGG). Honolulu has always had the most traffic but even during last summer traffic was at about one-fifth of January 2020 figures. Compare that to Maui which saw just a dozen flights week for much of the summer compared to well over 200 in January. It makes sense that with air traffic to Hawaii severely restricted, the majority of planes would go to the largest and most important gateway in Honolulu.
If we look at the two next largest airports, we see an interesting set of numbers. Kona (KOA) saw a huge reduction in April, from about 110 flights a week on average to just four or five. But once the “Safe Travels” program was initiated, which allowed visitors to skip quarantine provided they arrived with a negative Covid test, Kona’s numbers got back up to 80 to 90 weekly flights in many cases. Nearly normal levels. Honolulu was still at roughly half of normal numbers in the same period.
The outlier through much of the past year has been Lihue (LIH), on Kauai. Despite something of a peak in October and November (about half of normal levels), that figure dropped to almost nothing again in December and has remained very low since. Of course this turns out to make perfect sense – Kauai in December decided to opt out of the Safe Travels quarantine exemption in December. The effect was immediately apparent. Word has it Kauai will be rejoining the program in April – no doubt bolstered by the widespread reduction of infections across a lot of the US mainland.
Which airline dominates?
Looking at the data breakdown by airline is interesting, even for the pre-pandemic period. I would have guessed that Hawaiian Airlines had the most flights pre-pandemic, and that would have been mostly true. What I wouldn’t have guessed is that Alaska Airlines was so high up the rankings for weekly flights. While this doesn’t measure total seats, and that might skew the picture considering other US carriers send a fair number of wide-bodies to Hawaii, it’s nevertheless intriguing. In fact at one point in December Alaska had more weekly flights than anyone else.
Another standout in this chart is United Airlines, with a few notable surges in flight numbers. United seems to have been especially bullish about restarting service at certain points. And we’ve seen announcements of plenty of new service to Hawaii from United – with the latest round of additions including Newark to Maui and Chicago to Kona beginning in June. In fact this week United announced additional frequencies on those and other Hawaii routes.
Flights versus Covid cases
It may be especially interesting to look at the flights chart overlaid on top of the chart for Covid cases. Anyone that hoped to argue that inbound flights would not have a measurable effect on case numbers won’t like the look of this. But as always there are dozens of variables to take into account – not least that Hawaii was very much closed off and had very low case numbers before opening up. So, testing or not, there was bound to be some increase. And Hawaii has overall avoided some of the most catastrophic results of the pandemic, as seen in other states.
It’s worth noting that a small bump in flight numbers over the summer last year happened pretty much alongside quite a large bump in case numbers. And since then, another wave has followed, also mirroring some of the extra flight activity. We can’t say how much the flights played a role with only this data in hand, but it’s nevertheless intriguing.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is that although flight numbers have stayed relatively steady since roughly the beginning of the year, case numbers have dropped quite a bit. We’ll check back in on the data after a few weeks to see if that’s sustained. If so, it’s of course great news for the airlines and Hawaiians alike. Not to mention all the people who have bookings to go there this summer.