Hawaii feels sting of higher airfares
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
Rising fuel prices and extra charges for things like a second piece of luggage mean that a $600 to $800 round-trip flight from Honolulu to the West Coast now costs as much as off-season airfare to Europe just a few years ago.
Yesterday, United Airlines increased its fee to change flight plans from $100 to $150 and Mary Lou Lewis — founder and co-owner of HNL Travel Associates — believes more airlines will follow. Add the increase to existing charges for on-flight food, $25 for an extra bag and ever-rising fuel surcharges and airline passengers this spring and summer face "terrible, terrible fares," Lewis said.
With Aloha Airlines and ATA ending their passenger service, the remaining flights between here and the Mainland are fuller, with fewer discounted seats.
That means that University of Hawai'i assistant professor Amy Schiffner probably won't see her older brother this summer and may have a separate family reunion on Moloka'i canceled.
Schiffner and her brother, Scott Robbins, "would definitely call each other one of our best friends," she said.
They have been talking since Christmas about Robbins, his wife and their two toddlers flying from Phoenix to O'ahu for a weeklong visit in early June.
"We were hoping for a non-stop flight for all four for under $2,000," Schiffner said. "Back in December, there were a lot of prices under that range. But then ATA and all of them started going under and we haven't been able to find anything under $2,000."
Well, not exactly.
For just under $2,000, Schiffner could book three seats and put the 2-year-old on one parent's lap. The trip would also involve two layovers before settling in for a more than five-hour flight across the ocean.
"That's a lot with a 3 1/2-year-old and a 2-year-old," Schiffner said. "It doesn't hardly seem worth it for just a week."
Schiffner now sometimes gets up in the middle of the night to check airfares online hoping for a miracle — as her husband's aunt figures out what to do about her 60th birthday celebration in July on Moloka'i for 25 people from California and Oklahoma.
Several relatives bought discounted tickets on ATA and now face much higher fares — on top of the money they've probably already lost because of ATA's shutdown.
"We may have to cancel the whole thing," Schiffner said.
With ATA gone, even the once-affordable hops to Las Vegas are more than double the price of just a couple of years ago.
"I quote $900 and the customers say, 'Wow that must be a really good hotel,'" said Rachel Shimamoto, manager of Travel Ways. "I say, 'No, that's just the airfare.' "
Shimamoto estimates that easily 20 percent of her business is now focused on finding relatively cheap seats for people with Aloha and ATA tickets.
"What can I say? Graduation, weddings. People have to go to those things."
Two weeks ago Shimamoto saw seats to Arizona for $686. The price has now jumped to $845.
"People ask, 'If I wait, will they get cheaper?' I don't think so," Shimamoto said. "I keep checking and each time it gets higher and higher. The cheaper seats are gone already."
Bonnie Gutner, the former owner of Travel Inc. in Kailua who now works independently, recently had a group of 100 people lock in their fares to Los Angeles for an annual church seminar.
"They weren't going to ticket until mid-May," Gutner said. "If they had waited, their fares would have gone up $100 per person — 100 percent of that was the fuel surcharge."
The high price of air travel is being felt nationwide.
Rick Seaney, chief executive of the Web-based FareCompare in Dallas, said there have been 12 attempts by airlines this year to raise fares to cover soaring fuel costs — most of them successful because the carriers didn't have to later rescind them because of competition. There were 23 attempts last year, Seaney said, a figure that will most likely be surpassed this year.
"It's crazy," Seaney added.
Seaney estimated travelers probably are paying an average of $100 more for a ticket this month than they would have in January. He advised travelers to book summer trips early to take advantage of available bargains.
All of the escalating costs and potential cancellation of trips make Schiffner feel that much more distant from family on the Mainland.
"Even though we live way out here," she said, "there was that feeling that you could still maintain your relationships with family and friends."McClatchy-Tribune News Service contributed to this report. Reach Dan Nakaso at dnaka firstname.lastname@example.org or at 525-8085.
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.