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Don't let mainland predators take 'Aloha' from isle residents


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POSTED: Sunday, December 14, 2008

What's in a name? Aloha Airlines' name means a lot to many people who call Hawaii their home. It evokes a "local identity" - a sense of history and a struggle against racism and control from the mainland.

So when Mesa Air Group Inc. said it planned to re-brand go! with Aloha Airlines' name, many local people got angry. Mesa's action felt a lot like identity theft and the sale of the aloha spirit. It hit a nerve, not just because of the 1,900 discharged employees whose lives were changed forever, but because these people symbolized an important part of Hawaii's history and soul.

Last Wednesday, Federal Bankruptcy Court Judge Lloyd King blocked Mesa's attempt to buy Aloha's name from Yucaipa Co., the former controlling shareholder of bankrupt Aloha who had won the right to sell Aloha's intellectual property. Mesa owns go! Airlines, the low-cost carrier that helped put Aloha out of business; the deal to sell the name and logo was part of a settlement in a lawsuit against Mesa.

The "aloha" spirit has been used by marketing people for decades to attract visitors to the islands. It's clearly worth a lot of money. But what is disturbing about this deal is that an outsider - a mainland predator - not a local company, wants to buy the Aloha name because of what it stands for. Some might say, "It's all just business," but it's not. King was on to something.

Businessman Rudy Tongg, who had built a fortune in the publishing business, started Aloha's forerunner - Trans Pacific Airlines - right after World War II because during the war years it had been difficult to get neighbor island flights unless you were in the military. Tongg loved to hunt on the neighbor islands and wanted to visit his father on the Big Island. So, he started his own airline, according to Peter Forman, a local aviation historian and author of "Wings of Paradise: Hawaii's Incomparable Airlines" (2005).

Forman notes that "Chinese, Japanese and Filipino descendants of plantation workers told stories of losing their seats to late-arriving Caucasian travelers. Many felt that even when the wartime restrictions were lifted, they continued to be discriminated against on flights with the territory's only airline (p.104)."

Tongg decided to start TPA as "the people's airline," and later added the words "the Aloha Airline" that had discounts for families. Later, Tongg asked another Asian-American, Hung Wo Ching, who made money in real estate, to help him manage the airline, and Ching bought a sizeable stake.

Aloha faced many struggles against its well-financed competition, Hawaiian Airlines. Hawaiian was aligned with the Republican Party that had controlled island politics since the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893. Aloha had close ties to the Democratic Party - the party of the descendants of the plantation workers and laborers who were growing in power in the state.

Time has changed the local airlines, but the "local" versus "mainland" mentality still prevails because of all the things that those who love the islands cherish - its values and traditions, how people treat one another, what we eat and wear. After Aloha Airlines went out of business, Hawaiian hired many former Aloha employees. Perhaps we could accept Hawaiian owning the name.

But we lament the possible selling of the Aloha name to Mesa because we worry that this hits those laid off by Aloha in the naau - in the guts. And when they hurt, we do too.

 

Ann Auman is professor and journalism program chairwoman in the School of Communications at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.