HTA voices airlift concerns

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HONOLULU -- Amid growing concern that cruise ship passengers coming to Honolulu this winter will eat up what little airline seat inventory is available for other visitors, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) formed an investigative committee to look into the issue.

Looming largest on the HTA's collective mind is Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Star, which has the potential of bringing in 2,200 passengers a week to Honolulu when it starts interisland cruises Dec. 16 -- two weeks before the busy holiday season.

NCL also has scheduled six interisland cruises on the Norwegian Sky in October and November. That ship can carry 2,002 passengers.

"We are going to add 2,200 cruise passengers a week when airline loads are already heavy," said HTA member Ron Wright, who also is the managing director of sales for Continental Airlines in Hawaii. "The question is: 'Will there be enough seats for everyone?'

"I personally think that over a period of time, most of the new cruise passenger demand will be absorbed 50% by existing service and 50% by additional flights," Wright added.

Although most in the industry agree that airlines will adjust seat capacity to accommodate all demand to Hawaii, including cruise passengers, there still is some worry.

HTA members voiced concern during a recent board meeting that NCL officials, in meetings with the HTA, used inaccurate figures on airlift to the islands.

HTA further contended that NCL used those figures as the basis to decide whether or not to use scheduled air seats or to charter flights to the islands for its customers.

Norwegian said it is exploring charter agreements with airlines serving Hawaii to ensure the line will have enough airlift for its passengers.

At the same time, NCL executive vice president Robert Kirtzman said his company has been assured there are enough seats on regularly scheduled flights to accommodate its passengers.

Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, Hawaii's largest hotel operator, said it is worried that without increasing the air seat capacity to Hawaii, Hawaii tourism will suffer when NCL starts its cruises.

"I think adding cruise departures without increasing lift would definitely have a negative impact on people traveling to Hawaii for other reasons than cruises," said Perry Sorenson, Outrigger chief operating officer. "I would hope the airlines would recognize the demand and add additional seats."

Shari Chang, an HTA member and senior vice president of Aloha Airlines, said the HTA and others in the industry "want to understand what impact cruise passengers will have on the market."

"But until we know what the NCL ship occupancy level is, no one really knows [what the impact will be]," said Chang.

"If the [airlines] run at 50% occupancy, that's a lot different than if they run full."

Kelvin Bloom, chief operating officer of Aston Hotels & Resorts, said his company is concerned about airlift, but at the same time, he sees a growing cruise industry here as benefiting everyone.

"Airlift to Hawaii is always an issue because of our geographic location," said Bloom. "Particularly during heavy demand periods like Christmas and New Year's, airlift is of concern.

"The fact that the HTA formed a committee to look into this is a good thing," he continued. "We all stand to benefit from the big cruise lines coming here in increased advertising, public relations and promotion, but there is no question there is a concern in respect to airlift."

Stan Brown, vice president of Marriott's Pacific Island division, said he is confident the airlines will step up and deliver the added capacity.

"I would expect the airline industry will yield-manage its inventory to fill seats around peak times," said Brown. "There will also likely be increased pre- and post-visits of the cruise passengers around the islands, which should help level the air demand around key departure dates and potentially increase demand for hotel rooms, as well."

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