The bittersweet side of the Alaska-Hawaiian deal

Christine Hitt

Last week, Alaska Air Group, parent of Alaska Airlines, reached an agreement to buy Hawaiian Airlines in a $1.9 billion deal.

The news conference was a celebration, billed as the merging of two ohana (families). But I can’t help but feel a little sad, even though Hawaiian will continue to exist as a separate brand. After all, it was Hawaii’s last major, local airline — and with this acquisition, it’s no longer local.ย 

Hawaiian Airlines has deep roots in the Islands, going back to 1929 when it was founded. Prior to the airline’s existence, Hawaii residents and visitors were traveling by steamships. The carrier provided interisland service first, taking passengers between islands and slowly introducing them to the novelty of flying. Then in 1941, it connected Hawaii to the Continental U.S.ย 

Since then, generations of Hawaii residents and visitors have flown Hawaiian Airlines, and generations have worked for the carrier. In the Islands, Hawaiian has always been a visible brand, sponsoring some of the state’s largest events; it’s awarded large grants to local nonprofits; it extended its operations to help evacuate people out of Maui after the fires earlier this year. It’s always been in tune with what was happening in the Islands and acted on its instincts in a way that only a local carrier could.ย 

In Hawaii, where the coastlines are covered with resorts owned by foreign entities and large swaths of land — and an entire island — are bought by the superwealthy, strong ties are easily formed, with longtime businesses that were born and grew in the Islands. It’s a source of pride, and when a longtime local business like this shuts down, or is acquired by an out-of-state entity, there’s a little bit of heartbreak that goes along with it.ย 

Yet, it isn’t the same kind of loss as when Aloha Airlines shut down. The local carrier had been a mainstay in the Islands too, flying for 61 years when it closed in 2008, laying off 1,900 people. In Hawaiian Airlines’ case, it is not a complete goodbye — maybe prevented by this acquisition — but it still brings with it some uncertainty.

What to know about the deal

Since the acquisition isn’t expected to close for 12 to 18 months more, it’s too soon to know how the merger will affect Hawaiian Airlines’ more than 7,000 employees, or if its leadership will be able to connect to the local community in the same way that it has in the past. But we do know that the company’s headquarters will be moved to Seattle, where Alaska Airlines is based, and there will be a regional headquarters in Hawaii.

Nothing will change for guests immediately. Customers can continue to book and manage flights on Hawaiian’s website. For now, earning and redeeming mileage will be handled the same as usual, too. Later, the loyalty programs of both airlines will merge into one, but earned miles won’t be lost. More about what the combination of these carriers could mean can be found here and on the airlines’ FAQ page.ย 

As a frequent flyer of both Alaska and Hawaiian, I hope that the change is as positive as its executives make it out to be — and though it’s no longer local, I hope that flying Hawaiian Airlines will still feel Hawaiian.

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