Categorized | Business, Featured

Big Island bids JAL flight a warm a hui hou

Firetrucks salute the final JAL departure from Kona International Airport. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor

It was a bittersweet gathering Friday morning at Kona International Airport this morning, as tourism and government officials said a hui hou (until we meet again) to the last direct Japan Airlines flight between Narita and Kona.

The daily Kona route was among 15 international routes Japan Airlines (JAL) announced it would suspend early this year in order to restructure the company through bankruptcy and return to profitability.

“Today is about our strong relationship with Japan Airlines,” said George Applegate, Big Island Visitors Bureau executive director. “As far as we are concerned, it doesn’t end today. We are still promoting the Big Island through JAL and Kona is still a very popular destination for Japan’s visitors.”

Hawaii District Airports Manager Chauncey Wong Yuen said he was disappointed, but understands it was a business decision.

“It’s a big day. Sadness might be an overly descriptive word, but the airport will really feel it,” he said. “We’ll be losing jobs. We hired about 100 people back in 1995-96 and we’ll definitely lose some jobs after today.”

JAL offered the only direct international flight outside of North America to the Big Island, providing an essential link for the visitor and agriculture industries.

Since the inaugural Kona flight in June 1996, JAL has carried more than 980,000 visitors between Narita and Kona. It is also served as a carrier of Big Island exports including macadamia nuts, papayas, coffee, spirulina, abalone and desalinated sea water.

“The JAL flight is without a doubt the most important international route for Hawaii Island. The positive impact it has made on our economy for the last 14 years is highly significant, and we truly hope to welcome JAL back someday,” Applegate said.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, 164,745 Japanese travelers visited the Big Island in 2009 for an average 3.01 days. Japanese continue to be the largest spenders per person/per day of all major market areas, and despite the economy, spent on average $268 per person/per day last year, totaling $108.5 million in revenue for the Big Island in 2009.

Arriving passengers Friday on JAL Flight 70 were greeted with lei, live Hawaiian music and smiles as they disembarked the B767-300ER aircraft. (The flight landed about a half hour late due toTyphoon Chaba approaching mainland Japan.)

Afterwards, county Deputy Managing Director Wally Lau addressed JAL employees, thanking them for their years of service and for sharing their aloha.

“JAL has made many difficult decisions worldwide in recent months. Local ties, relationships and history that have been cultivated over countless years are now being affected. JAL recognizes and deeply appreciates the invaluable support of the Big Island and Kona community for the past 14 years, and also how necessary and vital this support is for a successful restructuring,” said Dan Yanagihara, JAL’s Kona Station Manager.

“I too am hoping for a speedy recovery for Japan Airlines, and hopefully with it, the company could reconsider the possibility of serving the Big Island community once again,” Yanagihara said.

JAL Hawaii Vice President & Regional Manager Ryoichi Okubo said the airline also felt strong ties with the Big Island.

“It is with deep regret that we have to suspend Kona service despite our best efforts,” he said. “We apologize for any inconvenience. We hope one day we will be able to come back to the Big Island when we are strong again.”

Departing passengers on JAL Flight 79 were also sent off with fresh flower lei, Hawaiian music and well wishes from Hawaii tourism officials. Firetrucks sprayed the departing jet with huge streams of water in a farewell gesture.

Passengers disembark for the final time at Kona International Airport. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

Waiting for the passengers. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

One last family photo of a Kona vacation. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

JAL staff members and airport crew in Kona wave good-bye to the final flight. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

JAL flight crew waves back. (Photo courtesy of Irondog Communications)

An emotional good-bye for Kona ground staff. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

Heading home. (Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

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