East Hawaii News

Thanksgiving holiday travel for Hawai’i expected to be busier than last year

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If it’s over the ocean to tutu’s house you plan to go this Thanksgiving, you’ll be part of an estimated 9.7 million residents of Hawai‘i, Alaska and the U.S. West Coast who plan to travel for the holiday.

That’s according to AAA Hawai‘i. The 2% increase from last year would be an all-time record for the holiday.

Nationwide, this Thanksgiving is projected to be the third busiest on record since AAA started tracking in 2000, with more than 54 million travelers expected to take to the sky and hit the road. That’s an increase of about 1.5% compared with 2021 and 98% of pre-COVID-19 pandemic volumes.

File photo. Photo credit: Hawaiian Airlines.

“It’s going to get really, really busy,” said Steven Santiago, manager of Hilo International Airport on the Big Island.

Heavy traffic at the state’s airports is expected to start Wednesday, said Jai Cunningham, public information officer with the Hawai‘i Department of Transportation.

He said for many, because of the pandemic, it’s been three years since taking a flight. He also said among neighbor islands, airports already were seeing a lot of traffic on long holiday weekends.

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The Thanksgiving weekend looks to be extremely busy, despite high gas prices and inflation continuing to take a toll on people’s wallets.

“Consumers are continuing to prioritize valuable and memorable time with family and friends coming together at the holidays,” said Heather Felix, AAA Hawai‘i vice president for travel product services, in a press release. “Our members still want to make up for their delayed or missed opportunities to travel during the pandemic.”

Cunningham said it’s business as usual this week for the state’s airports. However, they are working to make sure holiday travelers encounter as few problems as possible.

“Staff at all our airports statewide, especially the five major airports — Honolulu, Kahului on Maui, Kona and Hilo on the Big Island and Līhu‘e on Kaua‘i — work hand-in-hand with our airline tenants to make sure planes are brought in and out of gates as quickly as possible to minimize wait times for passengers,” he said.

Graphic courtesy of AAA Hawai‘i.

Improvements also have been made at a number of the airports to help the customer experience.

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In Hilo, Santiago said the airport is pretty much back to pre-COVID traffic. Cunningham concurred, saying passenger counts and numbers of flights at all of the state’s airports have essentially returned to what they were like in 2019.

Through September of this year, Hawai‘i airports have seen a total of 26,691,897 passengers, a 58% increase from nearly 17 million travelers during the same time period last year, according to the state Department of Transportation Airports Division statistics.

Hilo International Airport saw a total of 944,574 air passengers through September this year, a 91% increase from the same time frame the year before.

Ellison Onizuka Kona International airport had a total of 3,075,978 travelers come through its gates by the end of September, a 51% increase from the first nine months of 2021.

That means the state’s airports are already busier than they were last year — even before the Thanksgiving holiday travel period.

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Santiago said it’s been busy at the Hilo airport, due in part to lower fares being offered by Southwest Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines.

File photo.

“Our parking lot has been to the max,” he said. “It’s been filled every single weekend.”

It’s been so busy that the creation of an overflow parking area was necessary. The overflow parking is located in a grassy space just to the left of the airport’s permanent parking. A sign points the way and travelers using the overflow area need to get a parking tag from an attendant.

Now, the overflow parking location is starting to fill up just as fast and Santiago can see it being even more full during the Thanksgiving weekend.

Santiago said work is also being done to shore up and improve accessibility at the grassy overflow parking area, which could get a little muddy because of rain. More security guards will be on hand this week at the Hilo airport to help direct the expected higher volume of vehicles coming through and provide additional safety for travelers.

Parking is also a concern at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on O‘ahu. Another example of an improvement being made to give travelers less of a headache is the addition of new electronic signs at the Honolulu airport — the state’s largest and busiest — that say how many parking stalls are available in its three parking structures.

Travelers with flights from O‘ahu will be glad to know that among the nation’s major airports, the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport had the fewest cancellations from June 2021 to June of this year with 544, or just 0.9%, according to Florida-based livery company Price 4 Limo. The airport also had the fewest delayed flights for the same time frame with 8,956, or 15.2%.

But problems can still happen. So the best plan of action is to be prepared.

“Anticipate long TSA lines,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of travel for AAA nationwide, in a press release. “If possible, avoid checking a bag to allow for more flexibility if flights are delayed or you need to reschedule.”

Travelers should also consider taking advantage of tools such as early check in and airline apps.

To minimize any frustrations that could come along with the spike in travelers expected at Hawai‘i airports during the Thanksgiving holiday, Cunningham and Santiago offered a few additional pieces of simple advice.

“Make sure you budget time and get to the airport a little earlier than usual,” Cunningham said. “Two hours before interisland travel, three hours if you are heading to the mainland.”

When it comes to parking especially, all of the state’s airports have limits. Twidale said airport parking spaces fill up fast. Cunningham said travelers might want to consider getting dropped off curbside at their local airport instead of trying to find parking options. Santiago agreed.

People also could consider ride-sharing services.

“Come early, be safe and get dropped off,” Santiago said.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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