One of the great things about a window seat on Hawaii-bound flights is the dazzling view of the Islands from high above. Travelers who have chosen to fly between Hawaii destinations with Island Air, however, typically enjoy an even closer look.
"We operate at an altitude anywhere from 5,000 feet to 12,000 feet, which gives the passengers a really good view of the Islands," said Bruce Wetsel, Island Air's COO. "And in season they might even get a whale-watching adventure for the price of a ticket to their destination."
Island Air operates 37-seat Dash 8-100s and 8-200s -- quickly recognized by their twin turboprop jet engines and vibrantly painted tail sections -- and when Wetsel insists these planes fly lower than most of the competition, he's not exaggerating.
On my flights, it's been a treat to see the valleys, coastlines and even waterfalls of Oahu, Molokai and Maui from such a close-up, aerial perspective.
And the planes themselves, it seems, have little difficulty showing up when expected.
"They're extremely reliable aircraft," Wetsel said. "We have a 91% schedule of on-time departure for the month of November and a 99%-plus schedule reliability, which means we completed over 99% of our scheduled flights in November."
The airline got started in the early 1980s on Kauai as Princeville Airways, offering service aboard DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft between Honolulu and Princeville airports. Service was expanded to a number of small communities on other islands before Aloha Airlines purchased the company in 1987.
Renamed Aloha Island Air, the carrier added more flights and destinations in hopes of capturing the expanding commuter market to many of Hawaii's resorts.
In 2004, Aloha sold Island Air to Charles Willis, founder of the jet engine firm Willis Lease, making the airline Hawaii's third independent interisland carrier. Wholly separate from the jet leasing company he started 30 years ago, Willis has kept Island Air a private, family-owned company ever since.
"His father was one of the major founders of Alaska Airlines, so Charlie grew up in the airline industry," Wetsel said. "It's obviously in his blood."
Today, the airline operates 42 to 46 flights a day and employs more than 260 people, offering flights from Honolulu, Kahului and Kona. It's also the only carrier with service to West Maui's Kapalua Airport as well as the island of Lanai. According to Wetsel, the company also controls about 75% of the Molokai market.
"Our business model is to serve the small markets of Hawaii and not really get too involved in the major legacy markets: Honolulu to Kahului, Lihue, Kona and Hilo," Wetsel said. "We prefer not to fight the big guys."
The lowdown on load factors
As a private company, Island Air doesn't make its load factors or passenger numbers public, but according to Wetsel, 2009's figures were much like those from a year ago.
"Load factors have remained essentially flat, maybe slightly less, and fares have gone up a little bit," Wetsel said. "But there's been no drastic change in either number. You'd obviously like to carry more people and generate additional revenue, but in these economic times, and particularly during soft times of the year, you just want to make sure that all your flights are at least carrying reasonable loads."
As is the case with most of Hawaii's tourism industry, Island Air's business jumps in June with the state's traditional increase in visitors and runs strong through August. During the softer seasons, the carrier relies on traveling residents and business commuters.
"Like any of the other interisland carriers, our businessman is a guy with a toolbox or a sample case or something like that," Wetsel said. "Not the traditional suit-and-tie-type person. But you still have a lot of commuting every day."
The October joint venture between Go, Hawaii's second-largest interisland carrier, and relative newcomer Mokulele Airlines garnered a great deal of interest in the local media, but Wetsel said that agreement won't have much of an impact on Island Air, mainly because his airline serves a different market.
The reduced number of flights resulting from the deal, however, was something Island Air officials certainly appreciated.
"To us, it provides the start at least of some rationalization of capacity in the interisland markets," Wetsel said. "If the whole marketplace is a lot more rational, then we feel a lot more comfortable."