Facing a continued downturn in demand Hawaiian Airlines announced plans to suspend its interisland flights operated under the ‘Ohana brand. The carrier must receive approval from the Department of Transportation for that move, however, and an adverse ruling could create a significant operational challenge.
The ‘Ohana service flies on ATR 42-500 turboprop aircraft, operated by Empire Airlines. Contractual obligations with pilots and flight attendants mean that significant cuts to mainline operations put the regional service at risk. With the post-CARES Act Payroll Support Program funding situation leading to furloughs the ‘Ohana service is no longer permitted by union rules.
But the flights are also subject to Department of Transportation policies as non-subsidized Essential Air Service (EAS) routes. The DOT mandates a certain level of flights and capacity to be operated to these destinations. Hawaiian cannot simply walk away.
A strong negotiating position
Knowing that the mainline interisland operating levels were insufficient to support the ‘Ohana routes, Hawaiian sought waivers from ALPA and AFA to maintain service to MKK and LNY. While the flight attendants agreed to a negotiated waiver, ALPA maintains that it could not consider a negotiated waiver so long as any Hawaiian Airlines pilot is subject to furlough. With 73 pilots furloughed since 1 October and the expiry of the PSP funds the routes are in peril.
Hawaiian could, in theory, operate its 717s on these routes as mainline service, meeting both the union and DOT requirements. But the carrier believes that is impractical, stating that weather and runway limitations are “prohibitively restrictive for consistent operations with an appropriate margin of safety using Hawaiian’s mainline 717 equipment into these locations.”
Saved by the competition
In its application to the DOT for a waiver the carrier highlights all these circumstances and also points out that Mokulele Airlines could prove its savior. As ‘Ohana moves to suspend service Mokulele will increase frequencies on the routes, restoring the total available capacity to what is believed to be DOT-acceptable levels.
Because Mokulele will increase capacity it seems likely that the DOT will approve the move. But it is not guaranteed. American Airlines sought to drop a pair of EAS routes (albeit as the sole operator) and was denied that request.
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