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  • ANALYSIS: Ingram takes past cues to craft Hawaiian's future

ANALYSIS: Ingram takes past cues to craft Hawaiian's future

The new chief executive of Hawaiian Airlines views his job as a means to continue a major, company-wide transformation started by former CEO Mark Dunkerley during a period of bankruptcy more than 10 years ago.

Not to say Peter Ingram, who took Hawaiian's reigns in March, does not bring a unique touch to the job. He does, but he also remains an advocate of the path forged by Dunkerley.

That path, as laid out by Ingram and Dunkerley, leads Hawaiian through a major fleet renewal they say will enable the company to compete more effectively and to continue international and domestic expansion.

"I would talk about where we are going in the context of where we have been over the last 10 years," Ingram recently told FlightGlobal. "I said to Mark [Dunkerley], as he was leaving, 'The job I'm stepping into is incredible different than the one you stepped into 15 years ago.'"

Indeed, it is.

Ingram, who grew up near Toronto and graduated with a master's of business administration degree from Duke University, kicked off his airline career in 1994 when he joined the finance team of AMR Corp, the now-defunct owner of American Airlines.

He was chief financial officer of American's regional subsidiary American Eagle from 2002 to 2005.

At American Ingram learned intricacies of labour negotiations and financial analysis, and worked at AMR during the last four years of the tenure of American's legendary former CEO Robert Crandall, a man who placed great emphasis on analysis and data-led decisions, Ingram says.

"It was a great learning ground for someone early in their career," he says.

Ingram joined Honolulu-based Hawaiian as CFO in November 2005 – just months after Dunkerley became CEO, and months also after Hawaiian exited bankruptcy protection.

It had posted several years of losses, lacked the analytic rigor Ingram learned at American and had a weak balance sheet partly because the company leased its entire fleet of 11 Boeing 717-200s and 14 767-300ERs.

Back then, Hawaiian flew internationally only to Tahiti and Sydney, according to FlightGlobal schedules data. International revenue accounted for just a fraction of the whole, Ingram says.

But the job proved a good fit. Ingram liked working for a relatively small company, where he could learn various aspects of the business.

He stayed by Dunkerley's side through the proceeding dozen years, becoming chief commercial officer in November 2011.

Along the way, Hawaiian acquired more than 20 Airbus A330-200ss and another nine 717s (most of which the company now owns), and added international flights to airports in Auckland, Beijing, Brisbane, Seoul and several cities in Japan.

By all appearances, Ingram helped drive the company's decision to order 18 A321neos, which it is using to launch flights in secondary markets between Hawaii and the US mainland.

Ingram has called the A321neo perfect for such routes, which competitors already operate with 737s.

Hawaiian's A321neo plans, however, have been stymied by delivery delays. The company has received just two A321neos and cancelled or postponed planned routes this spring and summer as delays mounted.

Ingram calls the delays "frustrating", especially because Hawaiian is unable to take full advantage of the aircraft during the summer travel season – it's highest-demand period.

"You can't help but think about the short-term opportunities that we are missing out on by not having the fleet that we expected to have," he says.

Ingram still expects Hawaiian will receive a planned nine A321neos this year.

The delays come as Hawaiian finds itself amid an onslaught of competitive pressure, with industrywide capacity between the US mainland and Hawaii up 14% year-over-year in the first quarter, according to schedules data.

Though Hawaiian's executives stress that the company has ridden out similar past competitive surges, Hawaiian will soon face a new, powerful foe: Southwest Airlines.

That carrier is working toward receiving certification for over-water flights and aims soon to begin flying to four Hawaiian destinations. Southwest has not set a start date.

Hawaiian's A321neos are just the beginning of the carrier's planned growth.

In 2021, Hawaiian expects to receive the first of ten 787-9s.

Ingram declines to discuss specific routes Hawaiian might serve with 787s, but says the aircraft will enable it to add capacity on existing high-demand routes and to strike out to new cities.

The 787-9s have slightly more seats and range than A330-200s, he adds.

"Network growth is an important part of thinking about the long-time strategy of the company," Ingram says.

That strategy led Hawaiian recently to sign codeshare and joint venture agreements with Japan Airlines.

The codesharing started in March, and this quarter the companies aim to apply with Japanese and US regulators for immunity from anti-trust laws – a requirement for putting the joint venture into practice.

Approval will likely take most of 2018, and the joint venture will likely commence in 2019, Ingram says.

A finance man from the start, Ingram remains most proud of Hawaiian's financial transformation.

The company posts consistent profits – $28.6 million in the first quarter – boasts assets of nearly $3 billion and consistently leads the industry in unit revenue gains.

"Bit by bit, piece by piece, we have built a much stronger balance sheet," Ingram says. "It’s fundamentally a much stronger business today."

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