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Ross Higashi, head of Hawaii’s airports division, talks to Joe Bates about traffic growth, infrastructure development and sustainability initiatives at Honolulu’s Daniel K Inouye International Airport.

Honolulu’s Daniel K Inouye International Airport (HNL) is the largest of Hawaii’s 15 airports and effectively the remote US island state’s gateway to the world, handling in excess of 20 million passengers per annum.

Indeed, the Oahu located airport handled a total of 20.3 million passengers in FY2017 as more than 27 airlines offered direct services to 24 cities in mainland USA and 24 international destinations in Canada and across the Asia-Pacific region.

Its status is perhaps not surprising as around 70% of the state’s population of 1.4 million live on Oahu, which is also home to the University of Hawaii and a host of other campuses that are hugely popular with Asian students, particularly from Japan, Korea and China.

Kahului (7mppa), Lihue (3mppa), Kona (3.4mppa) and Hilo (1.3mppa) – located on Maui, Kauai and the latter two on Hawaii (The Big Island) respectively – make up Hawaii’s five big airports, all of which are owned by the state and operated by the Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT).

Nearly all the 9.4 million tourists to visit Hawaii last year arrived by aircraft helping support 204,000 jobs across the state as they spent $16.8 billion (+6.2%) on local goods and services, generating close to $2 billion in tax revenue.

And with more than 80% of all the food eaten in Hawaii imported from the US mainland or overseas and similarly high figures for all consumer goods, there is simply no doubting how important HNL and Hawaii’s other airports are to the continued success of the state.

So, was the 2017 calendar year a good, bad or indifferent one for HNL? “I’d say a 4.9% rise in the total number of passenger handled in Honolulu, which was right in line with our expectations, made it a good year for the airport,” enthuses Ross Higashi, deputy director of HDOT’s Airports Division.

“The improving US economy led to a healthy 5.1% increase in domestic travel, while international traffic numbers also increased by 4.6%. When the US economy does well, generally Hawaii does well, as most of our visitors are American.”

Japanese, Chinese and Korean visitors make up the bulk of foreign visitors to Hawaii and in fact many Hawaiians, including Higashi, have Japanese ancestry, which for some dates back to the 1890s when Japanese farmers and agricultural workers made up 25% of Hawaii’s population.


Americans and, indeed, America’s love of Hawaii, ensures that domestic traffic currently accounts for 75% of all traffic handled at Daniel K Inouye International Airport, and that is unlikely to change much in the future.

Los Angeles, the nearest major US city to Hawaii and gateway to the islands for many, remains HNL’s most popular route accounting for 16.6% of all passengers.

The next most popular routes are Tokyo Narita (14.5%) and San Francisco (8.7%) followed by Seattle, Phoenix, Oakland, Vancouver, Kansai, Incheon and San Jose, California.

Hawaiian Airlines is by far and away the biggest operator in Hawaii accounting for 49% of all overseas and inter-island flights and, arguably, HNL and the state’s other airports continue to reap the benefits of its success.

As HDOT Aviation Division’s former deputy director and current administrative director at the Office of the Governor, Ford Fuchigami, once told me: “Hawaiian Airlines is possibly one of the state’s most successful advertising tools as every time someone sees one of its aircraft parked at an airport around the world they think of the islands.”

The next biggest airlines at HNL in terms of market share after Hawaiian are United (11%), Delta (10%), American (5%), Japan Airlines (5%) and Alaska Airlines (3%).

For the overseas market share, the traffic mix is diverse with Hawaiian Airlines (30%), United (15%), Delta (15%), American (7%), Japan Airlines (7%) and Alaska (5%) accounting for the bulk of the enplaned traffic with the remaining 20% split between the 18 other airlines serving Daniel K Inouye International Airport.

Higashi reveals that he is happy with the number of destinations currently served from HNL, although he would always like to see some more, and he is set to get his wish soon as Southwest Airlines will launch services to HNL later this year or early next.


Route development

Having recently been granted permission to operate to HNL, Southwest has announced its intention to launch non-stop services to Hawaii from the Californian cities of Oakland (OAK), San Jose (SJC), San Diego (SAN) and Sacramento (SMF).

The airline also wants to operate an “inter-island” service between the Hawaiian Islands, although it has yet to announce launch dates for any of these services. One of Hawaii’s main inter-island carriers, Island Air, ceased operations last year after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Higashi says: “We continue to work with Southwest Airlines and they are on track to begin service to Hawaii by early 2019. Similar to Southwest’s impact at other markets, the Airports Division anticipates that Southwest may stimulate the market with lower fares and capture some of the passenger share held by current carriers.”

And there is more good news on the way as Japanese airline, ANA, is set to launch daily A380 services between Honolulu and Tokyo in March 2019 following the planned upgrade of two airbridges that will allow the gateway to handle the giant double-decker aircraft.

Future development

Regular visitors to HNL will have noticed plenty of changes over the last four years as its West and Central wings have been renovated. The gateway also has an impressive new digital wayfinding system, introduced free Wi-Fi courtesy of Boingo earlier this year, and has enhanced its gardens and a number of other facilities in a bid to boost the airport experience.

However, with traffic on the rise and demand meaning that gates are already at a premium between 10am and 2pm each day, it probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that HDOT has a number of projects either underway or on the drawing board to ensure that the lack of capacity never holds back growth at HNL.

“We have 47 gates today and everyone is taken during the 10am to 2pm timeframe, which means that the airport faces a number of capacity issues on a daily basis,” admits Higashi, although he is quick to note that outside of these times HNL is more than equipped to cope with demand.

On June 1, ground was broken on the construction of HNL’s new Mauka Concourse, which according to the airport will deliver it with “260,000 square feet of environmentally friendly space designed to enhance the overall passenger experience” and 11 new gates when it opens in 2020.

At the time, Governor of Hawaii, David Ige, noted: “I’m thrilled to get underway with construction of a new concourse at the state’s busiest airport. In two and a half years, we will deliver a beautiful new facility to the residents of our state and the visitors who come to Hawaii from around the world.”

While Blaine Miyasato, co-chair of the Airlines Committee of Hawaii, said: “The project is really the tangible first step in the modernisation of the Daniel K Inouye International Airport and will add much needed gates to accommodate growing demand at Hawaii’s busiest airport. We look forward to the opening of a new world class facility here in Honolulu.”

Located on the Ewa side of the airport and connected to terminal 1 (the current inter-island terminal), the $220 million two-level complex will be a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver Certified facility and feature 11 gates capable of accommodating narrowbody aircraft or six gates for widebodies.

The second level departure area will include a new air-conditioned Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint with six lanes to screen passengers faster and reduce the amount of time spent in security lines.

To make room for the new Mauka Concourse, the project will demolish the existing Commuter Terminal building and annex, including the ground level parking Lot B and terminal roadways.

And there’s more to come as HDOT recently revealed an ambitious plan for a new $1.1 billion, 800,000-square-foot Diamond Head concourse to replace the existing facility, which is nearly 50-years-old.

When it becomes reality, the new concourse will be located on the east side of the airport and is expected to have up to 16 gates – 12 to 14 of which would be for use by widebody aircraft – as well as a second international arrival facility with customs and border protection, an improved security checkpoint and a commuter terminal if necessary.

Higashi reveals that HDOT is currently in the conceptual planning and design phase for the new facility which is expected take about eight to 10 years to complete and become operable.

He says: “We know what we want and need, and we know where we want it to be located, so it is just a question of fine-tuning the plan to get the necessary approval from the airlines for the design and, of course, the cost of the facility, which ultimately will be passed on to them.

“The new concourse will accommodate increasing demand by multiple airlines to bring more flights to Hawaii.”

In the meantime, HDOT is investing around $15 million on refurbishing the existing Diamond Head Concourse to extend its life for another eight to ten years by making it more fit for purpose and passenger friendly.

On the cards are plans for more rest rooms, additional retail/F&B outlets and a fresh, new look for the facility that is primarily used by United Airlines passengers.

Elsewhere at HNL the construction of a new Consolidated Rent-A-Car (CONRAC) facility is about 50% done, although unlike the one nearing completion at Kahului Airport, buses powered by alternative fuels instead of a tram will link it to the terminals.

Sustainabilty efforts

As you would imagine from an airport located in one of the most beautiful places on earth, HDOT is very environmentally aware and HNL has a long track record of green initiatives.

Highlights include the introduction of the US’s largest energy saving performance contract with a private company (Johnson Controls) which will lead to a 49% reduction in energy consumption across Hawaii’s airports and will save $518 million in electrical costs over a 20-year period.

As a result of the decision, Johnson Controls will complete more than 900 individual conservation measures, which includes the replacement of nearly 98,000 light fixtures with high-efficiency light-emitting diode (LED) technology and energy efficient lighting, upgrading ventilation and air-conditioning systems and installing more than 33,000 solar photovoltaic panels.

Over 20,000 photovoltaic panels have already been installed across Hawaii’s airports and they will soon be joined by another 4,260 on the roof level of HNL’s Terminal 1’s parking garage above a new car port, which will also add shaded parking for vehicles, when complete.

The new panels – which align with Governor Ige and the State of Hawaii’s goal to only use 100% renewable energy by 2045 – will provide enough energy to power more than 328 homes for a year and are expected to nearly halve the airport’s annual electricity bill.

“There is so much to like about this improvement project. It’s good for the environment, it will save the state money and it provides covered parking at the airport,” enthuses Governor Ige.

“This is another step forward in my administration’s continuing mission to meet Hawaii’s sustainability goals.”

Environmental efforts such as these have helped Daniel K Inouye International Airport become one of only 16 airports in North America to achieve Level 2 – Reduction status in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) programme.

The programme recognises airports worldwide that are committed to managing their carbon footprint through measurement and reduction with the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality.

Higashi, who reveals that HDOT recently launched a water recycling pilot programme at HNL to treat and re-use waste water for irrigation and other non-drinking purposes, says: “Protecting our natural environment is, and always will be, a top priority.”

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