WASHINGTON (AFP) – Hawaiian Airlines on Tuesday launched flights to Osaka, expanding service to Japan as US carriers conclude that passenger traffic has recovered from the March 11 quake-tsunami mega-disaster.
Hawaiian Airlines began daily service between Kansai International Airport and Honolulu, part of an Asia-focused growth strategy for the carrier that since late 2010 has started flights to Tokyo's Haneda and Seoul's Incheon airports.
Mark Dunkerley, Hawaiian Airlines' president and CEO, said that passenger numbers between Tokyo and Honolulu fell 20 to 30 percent after the tsunami tragedy but "that deficit has all been eradicated at this stage."
Hawaiian Airlines announced the Osaka service in February and concluded that "the long-term prospects had not changed," with some Japanese in fact drawn to the United States thanks to the strong yen against the dollar.
Kansai International Airport, built on an artificial island in 1994, is an international gateway for the western region of Japan including Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. But the airport has faced financial woes as carriers prioritize Tokyo.
Dunkerley said that Hawaiian decided that Kansai was "a very distinct market" and that "we couldn't properly claim to be serving Japan just by serving one destination."
"Japan is not a homogenous country without any sort of differentiation," he told AFP. "It would be akin to thinking in the United States of there being no difference between New York and Los Angeles."
But while Hawaii is a favorite holiday destination for Japanese, US legacy carriers serving the continental United States initially cut back on flights in the aftermath of the earthquake.
American Airlines and Delta Air Lines temporarily shut service to Haneda airport, which they had launched with heavy promotional campaigns before the earthquake.
Haneda, primarily a domestic airport, is much closer to central Tokyo than Narita -- the main international gateway to the metropolis. Japan opened up Haneda to long-haul flights in hopes of stimulating demand, with American, Delta and Hawaiian winning the US slots.
American has resumed service to Haneda from New York and Delta from Los Angeles. But Delta has not restarted flights to Haneda from Detroit, saying that the route is heavily reliant on US East Coast business travel, which remains down.
Delta received a waiver until April 2012 from the US Department of Transportation, whose rules required carriers to use the hard-fought Haneda slots or lose them.