Hawaiian Airlines Wants to Be the First US Airline to Fly Airbus A380s, Because Why Exactly?

Japan’s Skymark Airlines was scheduled to take the A380, but it went bankrupt. ANA won Airbus’ support as a creditor to take control of Skymark — all they wanted was Skymark’s slots at Tokyo Haneda — by agreeing to accept the Skymark A380s. ANA says they’ll operate the planes to Honolulu.

No US airline has taken an A380. Many airlines regret theirs. It’s a big plane, expensive to operate, although cost-effective if you can fill it. The idea was to fly routes at slot-congested airports, like Tokyo Narita and London Heathrow, where an A380 could replace two smaller planes. But an airline that does that loses frequently, and becomes less convenient for time-sensitive business travelers. And adding seats to a market drives down the price the carrier can sell those seats for.

What’s more operating just a couple of planes is expensive, you need crews trained for the aircraft and you need parts and a maintenance program for the aircraft, the fixed costs of a plane type don’t get spread across a large number of aircraft. But it’s a niche player for most.

That’s a key reason that only Emirates has really made the Airbus A380 work. They fill planes with lots of passengers at low prices, and fly them long distances. And they have a lot of planes.

To paraphrase Jacques Lory in Casablanca, ‘the A380 is a drug on the market, everybody sells A380s, there are A380s everywhere.’

  • Singapore is returning its first five
  • Malaysia is trying to unload its six
  • Emirates itself is replacing the first 25 of theirs.

New A380s aren’t selling, the aircraft has been on the chopping block, and the used market is flooding with aircraft.

Against the backdrop of cheap A380s, and a bit of monkey see monkey do, Hawaiian Airlines is reportedly considering becoming the first US airline to operate the plane. (HT: One Mile at a Time)

Hawaiian Airlines is waiting to see whether six A330neo jetliners ordered from Airbus will enable it to begin service to Europe. The U.S. carrier also is looking at adding more routes to China and the eastern U.S., and examining whether it should consider acquiring the A380 superjumbo, according to its chief executive officer.

Hawaiian wants to fly to London, but they swapped A350 orders for A330s and they don’t know if those will have the range. And there are other routes for which they want greater range aircraft:

Southeast Asia is beyond the range of Hawaiian’s 23 current-generation A330s and nine Boeing Co. 767s, though more Australian flights would be an option, according to the CEO.

It sounds like what they really want, though, are either A350s (including potentially the upcoming A350ULR or ‘ultra long range’) or Boeing 787s. They could even potentially pick up Boeing 777-200LRs (long range) on the cheap with A350s as they replace the older Boeing at some carriers.

They could operate the A380 on Honolulu – Tokyo and Honolulu – Los Angeles, but they’d be giving up frequency on routes that are already competitive. They’d have to fill a giant plane with passengers willing to fly in a narrower range of times, likely driving down yield.

The question, it seems, is whether Hawaiian could secure the planes cheap enough to turn a stupid idea into one that’s merely dumb. And whether they remember, before copying ANA with an A380 on Honolulu – Tokyo (which ANA hasn’t done yet), that ANA doesn’t really want to do it but has to send the planes somewhere. Hawaiian doesn’t have to send A380s somewhere, since they don’t have any yet and would probably be well-advised to not get any.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Why don’t the governments take them like the airforce 1.

    It’s sad 380 is doing badly. Anyway we can blame the bloggers for this?

  2. The A380 is a plane that I have never understood. The fact that ANY airline would want them, especially given the more fuel-efficient options available, is beyond me. They have always struck me as too big and — not that I *want* this to happen — I have long predicted that the first major crash of an A380 will mark the end of its overall service.

  3. Think there is more to the story, there are other factors at work. For example, wouldn’t the squeeze on yield also affect their current and future domestic competitors, thus acting as a barrier to entry or expansion? They would be leveraging a meaningful advantage in the LA market – only widebodies going over the longest stretch of water without a diversion airport in the world. Better comfort and with a 4 engine plane, customer perceived safety. I know I’d sure choose that over an Alaska or Southwest 739 expansion. And Hawaiian is not well diversified, so they must MUST protect home turf.

    I think this last point may be the most important. Hawaiian is in some ways a de facto “state” airline, thus the comparisons to Emirates etc are actually quite apt. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the state of Hawaii might provide incentives. Hawaii is absolutely dependent on tourism, and tourism is absolutely dependent on the amount of lift into the market. The move to narrowbodies by the majors several years ago was not welcomed. It’s not complicated, the state wants more available seats any way they can get them.

    Let’s say HA is able to buy a fleet of 380’s on the cheep cheep. The key is that it appears oil is going to be lower for longer, probably through the useful life of the aircraft. Some incentives are thrown in. HI has a ton more seats coming in, HA can go more places and fiercely compete on its bread and butter, and from a customer comfort standpoint, its a no brainer (it kind of already is). There sure are a lot of winners in that scenario.

    Can you imagine all 380 lift from LA to Honolulu or Maui? Absent frequent flyer alliances, who would choose to fly anything else? I’m not saying they do it – all dependent on the numbers – but I can see it.

  4. The only plausible market for HA to operate an A380 would be Tokyo to Honolulu in high density. Would it actually make economic sense? You’d have to see HA’s books to know that, but it’s plausible. I don’t think LAX-HNL would work, but it’s possible. Nothing else in their network would make sense. So you’d be looking at a fleet of 2 to 4 aircraft. I doubt that fleet size would be economical, but maybe there’s some bargain–basement price for the airplane where they’d consider it.

  5. I will add one other thing – in rereading the Bloomberg article, my sense is that deals are already being negotiated, and he may well be playing off the opportunity in the used A380 market against another deal, say for the 787. The problem with the 787 scenario, or any other viable substitute, is that those airplanes are years and years away. Oil is low now. If they wanted to, HA could be running not just one, but a fleet of A380’s 18 months from now, perhaps less. If these planes are cheap enough, this would be a fascinating and transformative event.

  6. I preface this by saying…I don’t know jack squat about the airline business, legal complications, government policies in various countries, competition on specific routes, yield on routes or even typical airfare on them. So, this is more likely me acting like the the fantasy football guy who says “I’ll trade you Jay Cutler for Aaron Rodgers straight up.”

    But, this isn’t hinting at further consolidation within the airline industry, is it? Not suggesting a merger by any means. But, you can consolidate on routes without merging. If wikipedia is correct. something like 6 or 7 airlines currently fly between HNL and Japan. And, the last time I was at HNL 3 or 4 years ago, I saw at least a handful of 747s on that route from at least Delta and United, though I think Delta has retired those? Maybe? Or were they just talking about it?

    So, it seems safe to assume that there is reasonably stiff competition on HNL-NRT/HND. Hawaiian and ANA already have a codeshare, according to Hawaiian’s website, for domestic Japanese flights.

    Is an expanded codeshare, or joint venture, between HA and ANA possible? This way ANA manages to offload its unwanted A380s to HA, if they cut total flights/seats between the 2 of them, you could reduce capacity and see airfare rise.

    As I say, just throwing stuff at the wall.

  7. Frequency?, Hawaiian? Not their game. A380 provides the capacity and range they need. But still, the economics on what still would be a small fleer would be dicey.

  8. I think it’s intriguing. The LAX-HNL-NRT route involves 15+ hours of flying time (return trip a couple hours shorter). If they operated this daily with two aircraft I would think this might be a way to further differentiate Hawaiian service from the rest of the US domestic pack. You could put a third plane that alternated between LAS-HNL and SFO-HNL. I don’t know if the numbers add up, but the idea gets my attention.

    I’ve never flown the A380, but this would be a route and carrier I’d try It on.

  9. Hawaiian got a deal on the new 338neo when the switched from the 358. The deal could extend to a new platform like the 380 or even the 350-1000. If HA could do a Europe direct trip, given the time difference and frequency, HA would be doing 2-3 flts per week.

    Let us also consider the daytime slot Hawaiian was just awarded for Haneda. HA could use the A380 to fly from PHNL->RJTT / RJTT->KLAX / KLAX->PHNL. A direct Japan, LA route is an option with the HA being awarding a gate slot and with Delta moving to T2 and T3 at LAX, this gives HA a bargaining chip for a specific flt block and gate. This coupled with the A321neo aircraft, HA will be able to maintain numbers to Hawaii.

    I feel HA might be looking not only for direct routes to Canada and Europe, but routes that exclude HNL as the final destination. HA could start doing trans pacific routes, Australia to LAX.

    I’m just an enthusiast and I could be hoping for a move on Hawaiians part (cause I have stocks), but if HA did get the a380, can PHNL and HA handle the operation, turn-around time? Hawaiian is building a new terminal at PHNL but that has been put on hold. If design changes are being made to the new terminal layout, this might give a hint to what HA will be purchasing.

  10. To do this I assume they’d have to ultimately acquire say 10 aircraft, perhaps more. if they want to penetrate China and Japan markets more meaningfully. China is going to be an absolute monster driving air travel.

    HNL-LHR daily alone would require at least two, three to go daily, forget about the new routes they’d pursue. So given the size of the fleets they run (only 8 767’s for example), I don’t see the critical mass being an issue for the logistics side. It’s all about the routes, seats and overall cost efficiency. As noted above, frequency not their game. I think it gets more and more interesting as you peel the onion. Theoretically once they started down this path, they’d have a cheap supply of used 380’s at their fingertips for years to come in the event of replacement or expansion. This is a 15 year investment strategy anyway, who knows what the industry will project out to be 10 years from now, when they’d face a decision on an end of life 380 fleet.

    Again, how cheaply they can acquire the fleet – how much cheaper to acquire and maintain vs new 787 or 777 variant – is huge. Speed to implement the strategy is far quicker with the 380. Another possibility, although more remote I would assume, is if Airbus, for whatever reasons gave HA a crazy deal on new 380s (neo or otherwise) to keep the production line going. That would be a much longer timeline to implement, however.

    Really interested to see how this plays out.

  11. Well I do think that Hawaiian Airlines could buy that aircraft. I live in Hawaii and I mostly fly Hawaiian. By this time, I think Hawaiian Air has enough money for at least 5 A380s? Maybe in the future there would be a380s with the print “HAWAIIAN” on it.

  12. I think posters above are really on the money.

    It’s about framing: HA isn’t a US domestic airline.

    It’s an Asian airline which is allowed stopovers in the US. The possibilities are intriguing. Let’s not write them off.

  13. “Southeast Asia is beyond the range of Hawaiian’s 23 current-generation A330s and nine Boeing Co. 767s”

    It is? Japan is closer to HNL than JFK is, but they fly there. South Korea, significant parts of China, all of Japan, New Zealand, and much of Northeastern Australia are closer to HNL than JFK is. The Philippines and the remainder of the heavily-populated parts of China are only slightly farther away. Of course, Europe is another story entirely. They would certainly need a longer-range aircraft for that.

    Delta flies the A330 from *Detroit* to Beijing (and from Seattle to Hong Kong.) It seems rather hard to believe Hawaiian can’t fly it to Beijing from HNL.

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