The Rise And Fall Of Hawaii’s Aloha Airlines

Inspired by the desire to create an airline where all Hawaiians felt welcome, Aloha Airlines served the islands for nearly 62 years before ceasing operations in 2008. From its first World War II surplus turboprops to its all 737 fleet, let us take a look at the history of what began as “the people’s airline.”

the rise and fall of Aloha Airlines
Aloha Airlines operated for 62 years before its bankruptcy in 2008. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia Commons

Aloha Airlines was the first Hawaiian airline to become profitable. Before it went bankrupt, it had a long and rich history of operating several different aircraft on interisland, mainland, and international flights. The carrier began life as a charter propeller airline almost a year following the end of World War II. It ended all operations on March 31st, 2008, after filing for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11.

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“The people’s airline”

Aloha was founded as Trans-Pacific Airlines by American businessman and publisher Ruddy F. Tongg Sr on July 26th, 1946. Mr Tongg, who became one of the wealthiest Hawaiians in his day, emigrated to the US from China before the start of WWII. The seed for Aloha was reportedly sown when he was refused boarding on a flight to the US mainland, where he wished to expand his business.

The precise reason for the airline prohibiting him from flying remains unclear. Meanwhile, given the times, general assumptions about it being motivated by ethnicity might not be too far-fetched. While airplanes were not segregated per se, airports still were.

Either way, the company Mr Tongg went on to start employed only local (a word often ascribed to the islands’ non-Caucasian populations) Hawaiians and its first slogan was to be “the people’s airline.”

Despite still awaiting federal approval for regularly scheduled service, in its first year Trans-Pacific Airlines (or TPA) carried over 10,000 passengers.

the rise and fall of Aloha aIrlines
Three Vickers Viscounts arrived with the airline in 1963. Photo: Bill Larkins via Flickr

First flight with reconfigured C-47s

Mr Tongg took advantage of the surplus of propeller planes left behind after the war came to an end, along with their unoccupied pilots. Its first flight was operated by a Douglas C-47 reconfigured as a DC-3 from Honolulu to Maui and Hilo. The DC-3s were to remain in its fleet for another 15 years.

The carrier changed its name to TPA – The Aloha Airline in 1950. At the same time, in a bid to strike out the competition, rival Hawaiian Airlines began operating the Convair 340. It did not work as two years later, TPA, as the first Hawaiian carrier to do so, reported a profit.

Aloha goes public

In 1959, with the arrival of CEO Hung Wo Ching, the carrier dropped the TPA and became Aloha Airlines. It also started using Fairchild F-27s and began trading publicly for the first time.

In 1963, three Vickers Viscounts arrived with Aloha, two from Austrian Airlines, and one from Northeast Airlines. Meanwhile, only three years later, the airline decided to move towards a jet engine fleet. The first British Aircraft Corporation BAC 1-11 joined the carrier in 1966.

Aloha Airlines rise and fall
Aloha took delivery of its first “Funbird” Boeing 737-200s in 1969. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

Transition to 737s overreached capacity, triggering merger attempt

Aloha began the transition to the all-Boeing 737 airline it was to become in March 1969, when two 737-200s, nicknamed “Funbirds” by the carrier, entered service. As more of the model arrived, it retired its final Vickers Viscount in 1971.

This new reach for capacity mostly came as a response to rival Hawaiian acquiring several DC-9s. However, both airlines gravely overestimated their ability to fill the larger jets. They both suffered financially as a result, triggering the first out of three failed merger attempts.

Aloha Airlines
Aloha initially overestimated the need for larger jets. Photo: Eddie Maloney via Wikimedia Commons

Three tries for an Aloha-Hawaiian

No less than three attempts at a merger between the two rivals Hawaiian and Aloha Airlines happened throughout the years. The first in 1970, the second in 1988 and the third in 2001. All were, of course, unsuccessful.

The final attempt was initiated by the downturn in US commercial aviation following the 9/11 attacks. It was called off following class-action lawsuits by multiple groups, including employees and stake-holders, and three Republican state senators who asked the Justice Department to block the deal.

There were no less than three failed merger attempts between Aloha and Hawaiian throughout the years. Photo: Getty Images

Aloha and the 737

All in all, Aloha operated 84 Boeing 737s over the course of its history. Sixty-one of those were 737-200s, with a handful of the -300 and a couple of the -400 model. It also flew 13 737-700s and managed to lease an -800 from Transavia for just six months before filing for bankruptcy in March 2008.

During the 1980s, Aloha had a brief stint as a truly trans-Pacific airline, operating leased DC-10s between Honolulu and Taipei. However, the service lasted only a couple of years.

The price war with go!

The beginning of the end came with the launch of go! airlines in 2006, and the fare war that ensued. go!, a regional brand of Phoenix, Arizona-based Mesa Airlines pressed the prices to an average of $39 for inter-island flights. Sometimes, it would sell tickets for as little as $1, forcing both Hawaiian and Aloha to join in the fight for customers’ favor.

What happened to Aloha Airlines
The arrival of regional go! started a price war in the Hawaiian skies. Photo: Travis Thurston via Wikimedia Commons

Price war, fleet age, and fuel prices

One year before it filed for bankruptcy, Aloha Airlines was Hawaii’s tenth largest private employer. Unfortunately, the raging price war, along with an aging fleet ever more expensive to maintain and soaring fuel prices, all conspired to leave a struggling Aloha without buyers or investors.

“Aloha Airlines was founded in 1946 to give Hawaii’s people a choice in inter-island air transportation,” David A. Banmiller, Aloha’s CEO, told the San Fransisco Business Times at the time of the airline’s bankruptcy. “Unfortunately, unfair competition has succeeded in driving us out of business, bringing to an end a 61-year-old company with a proud legacy of serving millions of travelers in the true spirit of Aloha.”

Did you ever fly with Aloha? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments.