This Little Airline Has Big China Plans

On Wednesday morning, Hawaiian Holdings (NASDAQ: HA  ) subsidiary Hawaiian Airlines announced that it plans to fly to Beijing from its Honolulu hub, beginning on April 16, 2014. Assuming that the route is approved by the U.S. and Chinese governments, it will be Hawaiian's 10th new international destination since it began its recent round of expansion in November, 2010.

China, here we come
Hawaiian has had its eyes on growth markets in Asia for several years, but began its expansion with the more mature, developed countries of the Pacific Rim. In the past two and a half years, the carrier has added four destinations in Japan (and will beginning serving a fifth city, Sendai, in late June), as well as cities in South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Hawaiian is also preparing to launch service to Taiwan -- another relatively wealthy Pacific Rim country -- this summer.

However, the big prize is China, which is an enormous market with a rapidly growing economy and rising middle class. Hawaiian's management has continually stressed China's potential as a long-term-growth driver. The company already has a Chinese-language website, and targets Chinese customers with "codeshare" flights on Korean Air and ANA that connect with Hawaiian's flights from Japan and South Korea to Honolulu. Moreover, at the Hawaiian Airlines investor day last December, the company pointed to Beijing as one of five cities in China that could be viable for near-term expansion.

Management has repeatedly stated that the biggest impediment to succeeding in China is the complexity of the U.S. visa process. Despite the difficulty of obtaining U.S. visas, the Hawaii Tourism Authority expects visitor arrivals from China to increase 25% this year, to 145,000. Hawaiian's Beijing flights will provide approximately 46,000 seats annually, and will be the only direct flights between Beijing and Hawaii. It should be manageable to fill this amount of capacity given the size and growth of the market, especially because the existence of direct flights will stimulate demand.

Why it matters
Hawaiian Airlines' capacity is still heavily concentrated on West Coast-Hawaii routes. This over-reliance on one region has made Hawaiian vulnerable to supply and demand trends there. Most notably, the rapid growth of Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK  ) in the West Coast-Hawaii market has put pressure on Hawaiian's operating results. While Hawaiian is not pulling back in the West Coast market, its global expansion nevertheless helps it diversify its revenue base. Moreover, after rapid expansion in Japan, Hawaiian is now trying to diversify its international reach, particularly because the yen's rapid fall has diminished the profitability of Japan flights.

However, entering China is particularly important because of the size of the opportunity. Beijing has a population of more than 20 million, as does Shanghai. Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Chengdu (the other three cities listed as opportunities by Hawaiian's management) are slightly smaller, but still very populous by U.S. standards. Hawaiian is beginning with three flights a week from Beijing, but within a few years China could potentially support four to five flights per day to Hawaii. Moreover, by becoming a first-mover in the Chinese market, Hawaiian Airlines will have an opportunity to build its brand identity and become the preferred airline for travel to Hawaii.

Foolish bottom line
We're still more than a year away from Hawaiian Airlines' first flights to China. However, the China market has huge potential for Hawaiian, and will play a major role in the company's growth. Right now, the company's stock has been beaten down by weaker than expected performance in the past few quarters. However, management gave investors a clear sign of its commitment to profitability on Wednesday by announcing the termination of service to Manila, which had been unprofitable. With a responsive management team and big growth opportunities in China and elsewhere, Hawaiian Airlines is likely to deliver strong long-term stock performance. That's why I'm viewing the stock's recent dip as a nice buying opportunity.

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