ANALYSIS: Honolulu's reascendant connecting hub

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Hawaiian Airlines is on track to return Honolulu to the international connecting hub that it once was, as the carrier adds new frequencies to both Asia-Pacific and the US mainland.

The carrier announced 18 special flights between Honolulu and Brisbane, Australia, from March to May 2013 that will allow for connections with its flights from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Francisco and Seattle, on 24 October. It will also provide same-day connections between its 11 US mainland destinations and Auckland, New Zealand, when it launches the service on 13 March 2013.

Most connections between Hawaiian's mainland and Asia-Pacific cities require an overnight layover in Honolulu.

"I can confirm we are seeing some connecting passengers going via Honolulu on across the Pacific including some kind of multi-stop itineraries," says Mark Dunkerley, chief executive of Hawaiian, during an earnings call on 23 October. While he was responding specifically to a question on connections from its recently launched New York John F. Kennedy (JFK) to Honolulu flight, the statement together with the Auckland and Brisbane announcements indicates that building through traffic at the airport is indeed on the airline's radar.

Honolulu is already a major international gateway. It handled 465,749 through passengers to the USA in 2011, according to a report from the Brookings Institution earlier in October. This makes it one of just 17 airports - including Atlanta, Los Angeles and Seattle - in the country that handled nearly 97% of all international through passengers during the year. Interestingly, only 1.7% of that traffic at Honolulu travelled through to the North American mainland.

The city also hosts three of the 50 busiest international routes from the USA. According to Brookings, Honolulu to Tokyo was the second busiest route after New York to London with 1.4 million passengers in 2011, while Honolulu to Osaka was number 36 with 434,631 annual passengers and Honolulu to Seoul number 40 with 401,094 passengers. All of these are routes served by Hawaiian.

A transfer hub at Honolulu for some routes makes geographic sense. The city was traditionally the jumping off point for flights from the USA to Asia and the Pacific dating back to the days of Pan American Airways flying boats due to its location. More recently, carriers like Qantas Airways and United Airlines used it as a stopover for flights between the mainland and Australia and New Zealand but it was gradually phased out with the introduction of longer-range aircraft, notably the Boeing 747-400.

Connections at Honolulu to Japan and northern Asia from the continental USA make less sense due to the cities location in the central Pacific and the ample direct flights between the markets.

Hawaiian is beginning to replicate Honolulu's past with its Auckland and Brisbane flights. The airline could easily create more connections, for example between JFK and Sydney or San Diego and Manila, if it wanted to by retiming one of the flights on each route.

Another growing market that Hawaiian could look at is Asia to Latin America traffic. While Honolulu has no direct flights to the region currently, an A330-200 could fly nonstop to the west coast of South America, including Lima, Mexico City and Santiago, Chile, from the airport. This could provide more direct routings than via major hubs in the mainland USA, including Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Hawaiian will launch flights between Honolulu and Sapporo, Japan, from 1 November, and Honolulu and Brisbane from 27 November as well as the previously mentioned Auckland service in March 2013.

Scott Topping, chief financial officer of Hawaiian, said that the airline would continue with its international growth in the coming years during a financial conference in September. He indicated that some of the largest potential markets it does not serve include Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei, Toronto and Vancouver.

Dunkerley told Flightglobal in June that the difficulty that Chinese nationals face getting tourist visas to the USA is an "impediment" to Hawaiian launching flights to greater China.

Hawaiian may not need the connecting traffic. It posted a nearly 78% increase in net income to $45.5 million on an equally impressive 28% jump in capacity during the third quarter compared to a year. Operating revenue was up 20.5% to $497.2 million.

However, Dunkerley has said that diversification is part of the airline's strategy and this is anticipated to further strengthen Hawaiian's balance sheet.

Ray Neidl, an aerospace analyst at Maxim Group, wrote in a recent report that: "We believe that [international] is the real growth area of the airline, and it is the reason we remain optimistic on the future of the company."