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Hawaiian joins other airlines in adding seats

DALLAS — Hawaiian Airlines plans to add seats to planes that it uses to hop around the island chain, joining the flock of airlines seeking to squeeze more passengers on to flights.

And the airline’s CEO says that lower jet fuel prices won’t mean lower fares for passengers. Leaders of other airlines have made similar comments recently.

Hawaiian executives said Wednesday that they will put up to 10 more seats in its Boeing 717 jets by using seats that take up less space because of thinner padding. Capacity will increase to 128 seats from 118 or 123 on the 18 jets, said Peter Ingram, the airline’s chief commercial officer.

Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and others have added seats in economy class or announced plans to do so. Ingram said the thinner new seats will allow Hawaiian to keep current legroom. He spoke at an investor meeting in New York.

Those Boeing 717 flights — under an hour — in the island state are often full but account for a declining share of Hawaiian’s business. The airline has been adding routes to bring more Asian vacationers to Hawaii.

Hawaiian began flying to Tokyo in 2010 and to Beijing in April, and international flying now accounts for 25 percent of revenue, up from 9 percent in 2010.

CEO Mark Dunkerley said in an interview that the airline’s short-term growth will continue to focus on Asia although U.S. cities will also be on its short list of new markets.

The falling yen has hurt Hawaiian, which now has four destinations in Japan, but Japanese consumers continue to book vacations in the islands and the market is growing, Dunkerley said.

Executives said that when the airline starts getting new and more fuel-efficient Airbus A321neo jets in 2017, it will add routes between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. They said that seasonal routes — such as the just-announced service between Los Angeles and Oakland, California, and Lihue and Kona, Hawaii — could become year-round. Hawaiian could also shift larger planes to add cities in the eastern U.S., where it currently flies only to New York.

Like other U.S. airlines, Hawaiian has benefited this year from strong travel demand and a drop in fuel prices. The parent company earned $57.8 million in the first nine months of 2014, up 66 percent from the same period last year.

Dunkerley said cheaper fuel won’t necessarily lead to lower fares if travel demand remains strong.

“I don’t think there is any automatic reason why lower fuel prices translates into lower fares,” Dunkerley said. He said that when fuel prices were rising, airlines didn’t pass the entire increase on to passengers. The recent drop in pump prices gives airlines a chance to become more financially stable, he said.

Shares of parent Hawaiian Holdings Inc. were down 14 cents to $20.96 in midday trading. They began the day up 119 percent in 2014.

BY DAVID KOENIG, AP Airlines Writer