Photography by Baron Sekiya | Hawaii 24/7
Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor
Touching down ahead of schedule Thursday evening at Hilo International Airport, the newest United Airlines non-stop flight from Los Angeles reunited families and brought home a native son.
Thursday’s flight launched United’s new daily non-stop service between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Hilo (ITO). United will begins once-weekly non-stop service to Hilo from its San Francisco hub; the inaugural flight is June 11.
The flights, operated by Continental Airlines, are the only non-stop service to Hilo from the U.S. mainland and complement the airline’s service to Honolulu, Kahului, Kona and Lihue.
The flight departs Los Angeles at 5 p.m. and arrives in Hilo at 7:40 p.m. The return flight departs Hilo at 8:55 p.m. and arrives in Los Angeles at 5:15 a.m. the following day.
Continental pilot and B737 flight instructor Lance Lau, a native of Hilo, served as captain on Thursday’s flight, which included a host of dignitaries as well as family members eager to be reunited.
The 737-800 aircraft from Los Angeles was full, and its 160 passengers landed about 10 minutes earlier than the anticipated 7:40 p.m. arrival.
They were greeted with a dramatic arching “water curtain” sprayed over the taxiing aircraft by fire trucks, then upon deplaning, passengers were adorned with orchid lei at Gate 3.
As they rode the escalator down toward baggage claim, local musicians and hula dancers greeted them on the ground floor.
The Big Island Visitors Bureau and its supporters presented each passenger with a glossy red bag filled with Hilo goodies, including Big Island Candies, Mauna Loa Macadamia Nuts, and more. Hilo Coffee Mill provided steaming hot cups of their special dark roast 100 percent Puna coffee as passengers waited for their luggage.
Mayor Billy Kenoi, Big Island Visitors Bureau executive director George Applegate, County Councilman Fred Blas, County Councilman Donald Ikeda and Miss Aloha Hawaii Tatiana Boteilho.
Applegate recalled that after the loss of ATA’s non-stop from Oakland in 2008, no one thought another non-stop would happen for Hilo, but gave kudos to Kenoi for staying positive, and proactive to bring in another mainland/Hilo flight.
“These flights don’t materialize like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Applegate said. “There is a lot of strategic planning, convincing and commitment that does into it. I want to acknowledge the thoughtful and determined effort that Mayor Kenoi and his team put into making these flights a reality. And now it looks like we might have our pot of gold, near the end of Rainbow Falls you might say.”
“We are proud to host United Airlines’ direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Kenoi said. “It means we can offer our visitors true Hilo hospitality and show them premier attractions such as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the world-famous annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival. We believe our guests will love Hilo as much as we do and will want to return.”
Among the passengers were a mother and daughter reuniting with their soldier dad and a grandpa who stepped off the plane to hold his infant grandson for the first time.
When military wife Chanda Reyes and her three year-old daughter Maya greeted Navy Lt. Carlos Reyes at the bottom of the escalator, there weren’t many dry eyes in the arrival area. The family has been separated for six months while Reyes, a helicopter pilot, served in Afghanistan.
“The Navy gave me this chance to meet my family anywhere for a reunion, and we chose Hilo. We’re from Colorado, and Hilo seems like a beautiful halfway spot between home and Afghanistan. This new flight made it easy to happen,” Reyes said, his arms tightly around his wife and baby girl.
The family was headed to accommodations in lush, oceanfront Kapoho in Coastal Puna about a 40-minute drive from Hilo, but couldn’t help but linger and enjoy the talented hula performances at the airport.
At a gate event in Los Angeles, Hilo radio personality DJ Gumby broadcast live from the airport and hosted a trivia contest with customers.
Award-winning singer and songwriter Robert Cazimero then performed a traditional Hawaiian blessing before joining Capt. Lau, DJ Gumby and other customers on the inaugural flight.
“Together, United and Continental have served Hawaii for more than six decades, and this new non-stop service provides our customers with more extensive access to the islands,” said Jim Compton, executive vice president and chief revenue officer of United Continental Holdings, Inc.
“We are excited to strengthen our presence in the Hawaiian community and are proud to be the only carrier to offer non-stop service to Hilo from the mainland,” Compton said.
The last time Hilo welcomed a regular direct flight from Los Angeles was 1983.
According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the flights have the potential to bring 40,000 visitors to the island, who will generate approximately $50 million in direct spending annually.
United has served Hawaii since 1947 and – from its hubs at Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Houston, Chicago and New York/Newark – provides more mainline service to the islands than any other U.S. carrier.
Continental will utilize a Boeing 737-800 aircraft on the route, with 16 seats in first class and 144 seats in economy.
United Continental Holdings, Inc. is the holding company for United Airlines and Continental Airlines. Together with United Express, Continental Express and Continental Connection, these airlines operate an average of 5,820 flights a day to 373 airports on six continents from their hubs in Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Guam, Houston, Los Angeles, New York/Newark Liberty, San Francisco, Tokyo and Washington, D.C.
United and Continental are members of Star Alliance, which offers 21,000 daily flights to 1,160 airports in 181 countries. United and Continental’s more than 80,000 employees reside in every U.S. state and in many countries around the world.