The Hawaii Department of Transportation plans to spend up to $30 million to outfit two gates at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport to serve the world’s largest commercial jumbo jet.
Officials believe accommodating All Nippon Airways’ huge plane may be worth the expense, however, due to potential increases in airport revenue and tourism.
The double-decker Airbus A380 has an average capacity of about 500 passengers, while the Japanese airline’s current planes flying to Honolulu carry up to 216 passengers. The Hawaii Tourism Authority estimates that Japanese tourists spend an average of $242.60 a day while they’re in the islands.
To accommodate the A380, the transportation department will expand a seating area in the international terminal, create a food court and build additional jet bridges at two gates to give passengers access to and from the plane’s second level.
Outside the terminal, the aircraft parking area will be reconfigured to accommodate the A380’s 80-meter wingspan. Baggage areas will also be expanded to accommodate the bigger load of passengers.
The improvements, which should begin in 2018 and finish in 2019, are part of a larger project to update the airport, said transportation department spokesman Tim Sakahara.
All Nippon Airways’ “Flying Honu,” one of the airlines’ three A380s, will start flying to Honolulu in 2019. The plane’s fuselage will be wrapped with an image of Hawaii’s most famous reptile, the sea turtle. The plane is powered by four Rolls Royce engines and has a maximum takeoff weight of 1.2 million pounds.
The transportation department has put out a bid for the gate project and has not received any responses yet. Sakahara said that the final cost may fluctuate depending on contract negotiations.
Honolulu will be the ninth U.S. airport to have facilities capable of docking the A380. The others include Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle and John F. Kennedy in New York City.
Gov. David Ige met with All Nippon Airways officials to discuss flying the A380 to Hawaii during his trip to Japan in late 2015.
Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said that ANA executives promised to commit more planes to Hawaii if the state could make the improvements to service the ANA’s aircraft. Shortly after Ige’s visit, ANA placed an order for three A380s, the first requisitions Airbus received for the giant planes since 2013.
Sakahara said the governor then asked the transportation department to start studying what it would take to upgrade the airport to accommodate the plane.
“This is a strategically important move for Hawaii,” McMillan said. She said that in the future, other carriers may use the gates to fly in double-deckers, giving residents more travel options.
No other air carrier has expressed interest in flying the A380 to Honolulu so far, Sakahara said. Of the 20-plus airlines with service to Honolulu, only Korean Air and Qantas, which serves Australia, currently have the planes in their fleets.
Boeing recently acknowledged at the Paris Air Show that it sees no future in passenger travel for its version of the A380, the 747. It intends to make new 747s only for cargo transportation.
Though sales for smaller, twin-engine craft have trumped the A380 in recent years, Michael Boyd, president of the Colorado-based Boyd Group, which provides aviation consultation, said the gate upgrades will be worth the cost.
“Honolulu is the perfect market for the A380,” Boyd said. “It’s almost an imperative. Honolulu is facing a lot of competition around the world for the Japanese dollar.”
ANA currently flies 14 to 16 flights per week between Japan and Honolulu on Boeing 767s, which carry up to 216 passengers. The airline plans to replace its 767s with the new 787, which holds 240 people, on Honolulu routes even before it starts flying A380s to Oahu.
On average, the Honolulu flights are 90 percent full, airline executives said earlier this year, the Japan Times reported.
ANA has not said whether the A380s will replace smaller planes for all of its Honolulu flights once the airport renovations are completed. Either way, the A380 should increase the net amount of tourism dollars spent in Hawaii, said Eric Takahata, managing director for Hawaii Tourism Japan.
He said the total number of passengers arriving on ANA’s A380s aren’t as significant as the greater amount of money those passengers will spend. Airlines are reducing their economy classes to add more first class, business and premium economy passengers.
“If we can tax the infrastructure less but maintain or increase spending, that’s what we are aiming toward,” Takahata said.
ANA representatives could not be reached for comment.
The state’s capital improvements budget allows the transportation department to spend up to $30 million just on improving the two gates.
Sakahara said the final cost of the project will depend on the construction contracts.
The Legislature approved a total of $446.6 million in capital improvements at the airport over the next two years.
The department will pay for the improvements to accommodate the A380s through bonds financed with airport revenue.
Wesley Machida, director for the Hawaii State Department of Finance, said that most of the airport’s $353 million in revenue from 2016 came from concessions, landing fees and rentals.
The airport brought in $145.5 million from vendors like car rental companies and restaurants. Airlines paid $66 million in usage fees (companies with heavier planes like the A380 would need to pay more, because the charges are based on weight). Also, $115.4 million came from rentals of aeronautical facilities such as hangars. Non-aeronautical rentals such as storage for goods brought in $15.8 million.
Before the transportation department makes decisions on airport improvement projects, Sakahara said it communicates with airport tenants, as well as the Airlines Committee of Hawaii, which includes representatives of 20 airlines that operate in the state.
In regards to the A380 gate project, the department “wouldn’t have made these improvements unless an airline needs these improvements.”
It’s not yet clear how much additional revenue the airport will receive from A380 flights.
However, what the plane carries may be more of an economic advantage for Hawaii than the plane itself.
Each year, about 1.5 million tourists fly from Japan to Hawaii, and that amount is expected to increase to 1.6 million by the time ANA’s Flying Honu starts touching down in 2019. But because ANA hasn’t indicated how many A380 routes will fly to Honolulu, there are no specific estimates yet of the plane’s impact on tourism.
Tourists from Japan produce about $400 million in revenue for Hawaii’s tourism industry each year.