Just as you have many options when choosing the airline to use when flying to Hawaii from the USA mainland or abroad, you also have more choices than you might imagine when flying from one Hawaiian island to another.
In fact, there are more flexible choices available for inter-island flights today than there have been in many years, and the market is constantly changing.
How It Was
In the early 1990s, there were primarily two airlines available for inter-island travel: Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Airlines.
Hawaiian Airlines is the flag carrier of the state of Hawaii and has been in existence since 1929, originally named Inter-Island Airways. They changed their name to Hawaiian Airlines in 1941.
Aloha Airlines, the smaller of the two, began operation in 1946 and was the more popular choice of airline for island residents who needed to travel to other islands. At one point they offered a coupon book with discounted prices when you purchased multiple tickets.
In 1995, a smaller airline named Princeville Airways, which had served a limited market flying passengers to and from the North Shore of Kauai to Honolulu on Oahu, changed its name to Island Air and expanded its routes to serve some of the smaller airports on the islands.
In 2004, due to poor economic conditions over the prior few years, Aloha Airlines filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from which it was able to emerge in 2006. Aloha might have survived had not a new challenger entered the market that same year by the name of Go! Airlines, which was operated by parent company, Mesa Airlines.
Go! entered into an airfare war with Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Airlines which severely impacted their competitors' bottom lines. Eventually, and after much litigation among all three carriers, Aloha flew its last passenger flights on March 31, 2008.
Later, in 2017, another small commuter company named Island Air ceased operations, making only three airlines - Mokulele, Ohana, and Hawaiian Airlines - the only options for inter-island travel. That is until 2019, when Southwest Airlines entered the picture with its own set of options for both inter-island routes and mainland-to-Hawaii routes.
Hawaiian Airlines remains the largest Hawaii-based airline in the state of Hawaii. Year after year it leads all U.S. airlines in on-time performance and is ranked number 1 or 2 in the national Airline Quality Rating (AQR).
In Hawaii, Hawaiian Airlines serves airports on the four major islands: Oahu (Honolulu International Airport); Hawaii Island (Hilo International Airport and Kona International Airport); Kauai (Lihue Airport); and Maui (Kahului Airport and Kapalua Airport).
Hawaiian Airlines has approximately 160 daily jet flights among the Hawaiian Islands, using 123-seat Boeing 717 planes, making it the largest of the inter-island carriers. Their planes are also larger than the other carriers with bigger seats and more overhead compartment space. These Boeing 717 planes can handle bigger pieces of luggage than some of the other carriers.
In addition to providing inter-island flights between all four of the major islands, Hawaiian also has flights to and from the USA mainland, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, and several islands in the South Pacific. Connecting from their overseas routes to an interisland flight on Hawaiian is hassle-free.
Hawaiian Airlines now has a subsidiary service called 'Ohana by Hawaiian.
The service flies 48-seat ATR42 turboprop aircraft which allows its contractor, Empire Airlines, to provide service to and from the islands of Moloka'i and Lana'i. The ATR 42-500 connects communities and families on Oahu, Lana'i, Moloka'i, Maui, and Hilo on Hawaii Island.
The aircraft bears an exciting design by renowned Hawaii Island artist Sig Zane and his son Kuha'o. As explained by Mark Dunkerley (President and CEO of Hawaiian Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Hawaiian Airlines), the "design weaves the concept of family ('ohana) with symbols for heritage and transportation, acknowledging our proud history as the first company to connect our islands through flight."
The Hilo-based designers used Hawaiian Airlines' inter-island route map as a basis for the design and incorporated three kapa patterns: piko, representing ancestor and progeny; Manu, representing both a bird in flight and the prow of a canoe, the traditional form of migration; and kalo, representing the family.
Reservations and sales for the operation are handled by Hawaiian Airlines, allowing 'Ohana by Hawaiian flights to integrate seamlessly into Hawaiian Airline's already well-established route network.
Mokulele flies 11 nine-seat Cessna 208EX Grand Caravan aircrafts. They fly over 120 flights per day, based on demand, on more than nine routes including Lanai City-Honolulu, Molokai-Honolulu, Honolulu-Kapalua, Molokai-Kahului, Kona-Kahului, Kona-Kapalua, and Kahului-Lanai.
Be aware that the under-seat storage is very limited, and there is no overhead compartment. Mokulele Airlines boasts that they are one of the few carriers of its kind to voluntarily require two pilots on each flight.
Southwest made headlines in 2019 when it finally made California-Hawaii routes and subsequent inter-island routes available to consumers. The addition of new options from this famous budget-friendly airline was a game-changer for Hawaii visitors and residents, as the company promised low-cost tickets that would rival some of the bigger names in Hawaii travel.
All Hawaii flights from Southwest are conducted on their 737-800 and MAX aircrafts, which have the most legroom out of their entire fleet. They offer non-stop inter-island flights between Lihue and Honolulu, Honolulu and Kahului, Honolulu and Hilo, Honolulu and Kona, and Kahului and Kona.
Comparing the Airlines
Despite its number of competitors, Hawaiian Airlines, even before the launch of its 'Ohana by Hawaiian subsidiary, has a share of the interisland market in excess of 85 percent. This is, in no doubt, due to their larger planes and more scheduled flights per day.
With the bankruptcy of Aloha Airlines in 2008 and Island Air in 2017, Hawaiian lost its long-standing equal competitors. The remaining airlines that serve the inter-island market can only still be considered niche carriers, primarily serving airports which are too small for the Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 717 planes. Only time will tell if any of these other airlines will rise to the level of true competitors, or if Hawaiian's subsidiary will force one or more of them out of business.
As has been shown throughout the USA, true competition helps keep fares much lower than you see in markets where only one airline flies the route.
If you are traveling with children, check each airline's policies regarding seating and airfare.
If you belong to a major airline's frequent flier program, look to see if the inter-island carrier offers reciprocal mileage.
Since many smaller inter-island carriers fly from the commuter terminal of several airports, you should find out if you will need to physically move your own luggage between your inter-island flight and your mainland flight.
Because of the size of the aircraft operated on many of these inter-island routes, it is best to review their baggage allowance carefully before booking any flight. On some planes, large pieces of luggage may not be allowed. Overhead space in the main cabin of many smaller planes may also be very limited or even non-existent, thus limiting the number, weight, and dimensions of any carry-on bags or personal items.
One thing to remember is that inter-island air travel is constantly in a state of flux as airlines add and remove flights. While you can make your plans well in advance, it often is best to wait until closer to your departure for Hawaii to check for the latest updates and deals.