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  • INTERVIEW: Hawaiian's Mark Dunkerley reflects ahead of retirement

INTERVIEW: Hawaiian's Mark Dunkerley reflects ahead of retirement

When Mark Dunkerley became Hawaiian Airlines chief executive in 2005, the carrier faced a second bankruptcy in 10 years, operated second-hand aircraft and had such punctuality problems that locals joked its HAL acronym stood for "Hawaiian Always Late".

Since then, Dunkerley, 54, who plans to retire on 1 March, steered Hawaiian through transformation.

Hawaiian now serves major cities in Asia, operates 24 Airbus A330s with lie-flat seats and is acquiring A321neos. It also has orders for six A330-800s, and Dunkerley has expressed interest in Boeing 787s.

The carrier consistently turns profits, enjoys enviable unit revenue growth and frequently posts the US industry's best on-time record.

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Dunkerley recently discussed his career with FlightGlobal, explaining how a boarding school education led to an aviation career that included posts at the Miami International airport, British Airways and Sabena Airlines Group. He joined Hawaiian in 2002 as chief operating officer.

Dunkerley, a pilot who was named the US Northeast region's advanced aerobatic champion in 2002, also reflects on industry evolution, new regulations and consolidation, and reveals his proudest accomplishment.

After retirement, Dunkerley plans first to fly fish in New Zealand, and he and wife Marilia Duffles intend to split time between Hawaii and the US East Coast.

Dunkerley insists he has no career plans after Hawaiian but does not dismiss returning to aviation. With retirement, he will relinquish seats on the board of trade groups Airlines for America and IATA.

Hawaiian's chief commercial officer Peter Ingram will succeed Dunkerley.

You were born in Bogota and moved frequently with your family. Take us back – what interested you in aviation?

I was born in Latin America and my parents were of British descent. We lived overseas and they were keen that I had a British education, expecting eventually to move back to the UK. They put me into a British boarding school. I was very fortunate that I was exposed to air travel from a very young age, and it solidified the passion for aviation and the passion for travel, which has endured.

I went to a boarding school called Winchester [College]. It was one of these sort-of grand old schools. Harry Potter could have gone there…. I was first sent to school when I was seven years old and I was there all the way through graduating and going on to college and graduate school in the UK.

Did you always want to work in aviation? Describe the industry when you started?

I come from a family background of academics, so for most of my education it was assumed I, too, would go into academia. When I decided that was not going to be for me and started thinking about what I would like to do outside of academia, aviation and the air transportation industry appealed right away.

I joined at a fascinating time in our industry. My experience growing up had been during the regulatory period and I joined, really, as deregulation took hold in the airline industry. The impact of airline deregulation has been the dominant theme in my career.

Is there a particular mentor who guided you?

One of the most influential people in development of my career was undoubtedly my first boss when I worked at the Miami International airport. I was an employee of Dade County and I worked for a guy called Dick Judy, who was an innovator in the world of airports…. He was extraordinarily generous in terms of giving me opportunities to grow and develop. When I compared and contrasted it with the experiences of my peers and the jobs they were doing, this really set me apart. He made sure I had a right-hand seat in all of the really big developments of the day.

How did you transition to airlines?

I worked in Miami for three years and then joined British Airways to run their Washington DC, office. That was a very interesting time. I've been very blessed.

I was a young man and it was a one-person shop in Washington, and my bosses were three-and-a-half thousand miles away, so I had to make myself relevant within the organisation. It was a stimulating and fascinating time that again gave me exposure to the hot issues of the day, which included, for example, the Heathrow successor negotiations which came about after Pan Am and TWA sold their London routes to United and American respectively.

I imposed upon myself the obligation to be in London one day a week, which when you think of the travel is a pretty heavy lift. As a consequence, I was never out of sight and out of mind within the organisation – something that kept me very much connected.

You've warned that new regulations and consolidation could threaten new or smaller airlines. How so?

I think… we reached a point where we are taking for granted the enormous benefits of airline deregulation and we are in danger of giving them up thanks to a couple of things. One is the consolidation we saw in the industry. Perhaps more pernicious is the lack of adequate airport and air traffic control infrastructure to support the demand for air travel. And the enthusiasm of regulators and legislators for adding regulations.

These two factors run the risk of de facto re-regulating the industry. Not in one fell swoop, but gradually. It's going to impact consumers. Whether for air transportation or anything else, they want choice. And when airports are constrained and air traffic control has to delay flights to make sure everybody travels safely, and when hub cities are dominated to the degree that they are in certain geographies, the number of consumers who feel they have real, legitimate choice has gone down compared to what it was 10 or 15 years ago.

What's the solution?

There is, first of all, no solution without the growth of airports and air traffic control infrastructure. The second step is to give airlines greater latitude to innovate and develop product attributes… in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Reduce the burden of regulation on the industry.

While there is language already that acknowledges the need to promote new entrant competition in all facets of the way in which government runs that aviation system, I think that language should be beefed up and put more regularly in practice.

Governments should be more supportive of new entrants?

Yes. [That's] one of the factors that, for example, airports must consider in the allocation of space. That particular factor should be given some real teeth. We are in airports on the US mainland where capacity constraints are taking hold. In certain airports we have been moved one, two, three, four, five times. Sometimes the space we are allocated gets better; sometimes it gets worse. What is true all the time is that we are the last consideration after the interests of the bigger network carriers.

Of what are you most proud from your time at Hawaiian?

The thing that stands out undoubtedly is how we created an internal culture within our company – a sense of family. The Hawaiian word for it is "ohana". That has been our weapon in the competitive battle we waged.

The Hawaiian I joined 15 years ago was an airline that had had a pretty indifferent 20 years prior…. The employees had been in bankruptcy twice in ten years. The company had, sort of, lost money essentially every single year for 20 years. The aircraft that the company purchased were all hand-me-downs from other airlines.

There was very much a feeling throughout the business that it was preordained that Hawaiian would be a second-best carrier. This was before the big network carriers filed bankruptcy, a time when those brands seemed to be in a special place, and untouchable.

The thing I take the most pride from is the fact that we were able to come together as a team. We were able to achieve some small victories to begin with, build self-confidence and develop our business and our internal culture to the point where we don't believe we should be second to anybody.

How did you change culture?

It takes time. You have to be resolute. We chose one element of our business for which we were known to be terrible, and we set about fixing that. That was punctuality.

In the community, Hawaiian Airlines, or HAL, stood for Hawaiian Always Late. We set about resolutely that we were going to be the most punctual airline in the country. That's what built internal confidence. It build this understanding within the company that, hey, if we set our mind to it we can be better than the main carriers…. [For the past] 13 years we have been the most-punctual carrier.

Asian discount carriers are targeting Hawaii, and ANA plans to fly A380s to Honolulu. How will that affect Hawaiian?

Any airline that hopes to prosper over any length of time has to continually adapt to changing circumstances. As I retire, I think Hawaiian Airlines is in the best competitive condition that it's ever been in. We have a superior understanding of the Hawaii visitor. We have a product tailored to their needs. We have a competitive cost base and, most importantly, we have a terrific frontline team that delivers the only authentic Hawaiian service. We are in terrific, terrific shape. We have seen low-cost carriers enter the Hawaiian market. They have not succeeded. As of yet, it has coincided with our results getting better and better and better. I don't think we look at anybody else's formula as being better than our own.

With respect to Asia – the future of air travel is leisure… and the future of leisure travel is Asia. I think Hawaiian is ideally positioned, not only in the short term but also for the long-term evolution of air transportation.

Can you update us on Hawaiian's widebody plans beyond the A330-800 order?

Both Boeing and Airbus, and, perhaps more important, the engine manufacturers… build quality products and we are very fortunate to have the degree of choice we have. We are looking at that, and getting close to the end of a decision process. Beyond that, I can't say much.

What are your post-Hawaiian plans?

I don't have any. I don't mean to sound trite in saying that, but I am going to take several months to relax and focus on the future…. It's an equal measure of exciting and terrifying. One of the first things I am going to do after my retirement is head down to New Zealand for a couple of weeks of fly fishing.

Do you anticipate staying in Hawaii?

I think we are going to be splitting our time... but Hawaii has been my home. It's been where I've lived longest in my life and I have a deep and abiding affection for the community here and commitment to it.

Might you consider returning to aviation?

I'm not really thinking about that yet. I can't say yes, can't say no. As I say I have no firm plans after Hawaiian. I have this deep and abiding attachment to Hawaiian, so I am not automatically looking into the next thing. I am going to take a little time to reflect and figure out what is going to be best for me and my family.

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