A year after launch, Hawaii Superferry finds calmer waters

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HONOLULU -- Hawaii's Superferry, the Aloha State's first interisland passenger and vehicle ferry service, was greeted with enthusiasm in August 2007 by Oahu residents eager to take their cars and toys to another island without having to pay expensive airline baggage fees or rent a car.

But explosive protests from some Maui and Kauai residents sidelined the ferry at its opening. For several months it was unclear whether Superferry, even if it got moving again, would be able to survive the troubled waters. The ferry restarted its Maui service in December, but the Kauai protests were so intense that Superferry executives under then-CEO John Garibaldi dropped the Kauai route to focus attention on the three-hour trip to Maui, the state's second most populated island.

But today, Superferry's troubles of a year ago seem a distant memory. Ridership by Hawaii residents and commercial businesses between Oahu and Maui is steadily growing, and the company added a second Maui roundtrip in May. There is still no launch date for Oahu-Kauai service.

Passenger numbers onboard Superferry's ship, the Alakai, in July increased 40% compared with June figures, and June's passenger count was up 20% over May. Vehicle numbers in July were up 36% over June. More than 36,600 passengers and 9,200 vehicles traveled between Oahu and Maui in July, averaging 390 passengers and 99 vehicles per voyage.

In April, retired Navy Adm. Thomas Fargo, former head of the U.S. Pacific Command, took the helm of Hawaii Superferry with the responsibility for ensuring reliable service; attracting more leisure passengers, especially tourists; and providing "a quality voyage experience."

"People like Superferry for a lot of reasons," Fargo said. "They're starting to realize that the Alakai is a tremendous ship with great capabilities, new capabilities for Hawaii."

Hawaii residents made up about 85% of Superferry passengers this summer, company officials said. From May through the summer, daily ridership climbed to about 385, nearly half the Alakai's 800 capacity.

The one-way rates for adults depend on the season, but in October they ranged from $49 to $59, not including a fuel surcharge of 47.7% of the fare. So the rates are comparable with inexpensive, interisland airfares, which range from $69 to $134 one way plus tax.

But in other ways, comparing air and sea is like comparing apples and oranges. Fargo said that on the Alakai there are no seating assignments, so passengers can choose leather sofas, reclining armchairs or restaurant-type dining seats. Armchairs along the sides and quiet nooks are available for passengers who want to use their laptops. An upgraded ticket that costs $20 enables passengers to enjoy a first-class lounge.

And on the ferry you can bring your car or bike. 

A rocky start

Despite its promise, Superferry got off to a rocky start.

Residents on the neighbor islands feared that their islands would become crowded with Oahu invaders. They also worried that the 350-foot-long Superferry's docking requirements could affect the harbors' environment and that vehicles and travelers could bring in invasive and non-native flora and fauna. Others said the giant catamaran, which holds 800 passengers and up to 200 vehicles, would strike migrating whales.

On its initial voyage from Honolulu to Nawiliwili, on Kauai, the vessel was met with protesters who succeeded in suspending the ferry service. Subsequent legal challenges kept the Alakai out of service from late August to early December 2007, when a judge cleared it to resume daily roundtrips to Kahului, on Maui.

Hawaiians still disagree over the benefits of Superferry. Keoni Lange, a fisherman from Kekaha, Kauai, said, "We don't need any more traffic or people crowding our beaches and surf spots.

"We will do whatever we have to do to keep the ferry from coming here."

But Tom Jameson, a resident of Haiku, on Maui, said that despite his family's initial doubts about the ferry, "with the airlines charging so much and being able to take my truck over filled with things, it's a whole lot cheaper. The ferry has done a good job policing itself, and I hope it stays a long time."

A recent survey of 347 passengers onboard the Alakai from June 20 through July 29 commissioned by Superferry showed that 92% rated their overall experience on Superferry as being "very good," the highest rating possible on a four-point scale.

Fargo said that while ferries were "a very well-understood capability" in the Pacific Northwest and Europe, the concept was new for Hawaii, where residents went through "an adoption curve."

"People have to get out and try something new before they're comfortable and accept it," he said. "In Hawaii, an awful lot of this adoption spreads by word of mouth.

"It's not the pictures of the Alakai that attracts passengers, but understanding how you can fill your SUV with your daughter's belongings and take her to college on Oahu, or put on two kayaks and some bicycles and go to Maui with the family for a day," Fargo said.

In the last several months Superferry's commercial business has increased through partnerships to carry fresh produce and bakery goods from large bakery and mail service companies, and freight expediters and consolidators.

Attracting visitors

The Superferry website includes deals with several hotels and golf courses, but many rates are termed kama'aina, which means they apply only to Hawaii residents. 

Building a tourist base means promoting the Superferry beyond Hawaii, which "takes time to accomplish," Fargo said.

Right now, about 15% of the ferry's passengers are tourists.

"It means arrangements with wholesalers, and working with hotels and resorts and the business community to see how we can satisfy their needs," he said.

Rex Johnson, the Hawaii Tourism Authority's former executive director, said some things have changed with Hawaii Superferry that appeared to indicate the company was going after some tourist business.

He cited the hiring of Neil Takekawa to fill the post of vice president of sales and marketing; Takekawa was most recently president of Roberts Hawaii, a full-service transportation, tour and attractions company. He is a former president of Aloha Island Air (now Island Air) and vice president of customer services for Aloha Airlines.

Johnson emphasized that the apparent shift in Superferry's customer target was "a good thing."

"HTA has always looked at Superferry as a neat product to have around," he said. "It's one more thing you can do when you come to Hawaii." The HTA hasn't evaluated Superferry's performance or standards, but "it seems they're performing as scheduled," Johnson said.

As for marketing Superferry, the HTA has yet to discuss the idea with the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

"Any marketing about Superferry will not be as prominent as working on air service," Johnson said. But, he added, "I think there will be more exposure from the visitor industry standpoint."

'On track'

Superferry "must continue to build ridership" both on the commercial and passenger sides, especially during the slower winter season, Fargo said.

"Fifty percent [capacity] was close to what we wanted to achieve early on, and we did this summer," Fargo said. "But I know we can average loads of 500."

Getting car rental companies to allow visitors to take a car to a neighbor island was "very important" for Superferry's attraction to tourists. The agreement was announced in May; Hertz, Dollar Thrifty, Avis, Budget, Alamo and National are among the companies that signed agreements to permit their customers to take their rental cars aboard the Alakai.

"People think it's pretty cool to take a car to another island for a day or more, then bring it back to drop it off," Fargo said. "It also expands the different activities that visitors can do when they visit Hawaii."

Fargo said there was no time line to reintroduce Kauai service.

"Next May we'll have a second ship here, which gives us more flexibility," he said. "Kauai will make its decision."

Meanwhile, Superferry is scheduled to start service between Oahu and the Big Island early next year.

"Everything is on track," Fargo said.

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