Empire sees Hawaiian partnership as opportunity to grow

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Idaho-based Empire Airlines sees its new partnership with Hawaiian Airlines as unique and a good opportunity for the freight operator to expand into the passenger business, says chief executive Timothy Komberec.

The regional carrier will begin flying three ATR 42-500s branded Ohana under a three-year agreement with Hawaiian in July or August, he says at the Regional Airline Association (RAA) annual conference in Montreal today. Empire will provide all of the "below wing" functions - pilots, flight attendants, maintenance, oversight and operations control - and Hawaiian the so-called above wing functions.

"It's a unique fit for us, both on the maintenance and operations side, and we think Hawaiian is certainly the premier carrier in that area," says Komberec.

The start-up date for Ohana will depend on when Empire can add passengers to its operating certificate, which Komberec says is expected by "mid-summer". Sequester-related budget cuts at the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) could push this back, he adds.

Ohana will initially fly to Lana'i and Moloka'i from Honolulu but Hawaiian is seeking FAA approval to operate ATR 42s into the West Maui airport, which has a shorter runway than the other airports at 914m (3,000ft).

Empire hopes to extend the contract beyond 2016. "This is new to Hawaiian, they really haven't done this before, and we have to prove ourselves to them," says Komberec.

The airlines signed a memorandum of understanding for the intra-island service in December 2012.

Empire will explore passenger operations beyond Hawaiian. Komberec says that the airline will look at opportunities as they arise but will not actively pursue agreements with other carriers.

He adds that outside its core freight business, the carrier likes two- to three-year projects assisting other carriers with start-ups.

Empire operates a freight feeder service for FedEx with ATR 42s, ATR 72s and Cessna Caravans. It also operates a MRO for regional aircraft at the Coeur D'Alene airport in Idaho.