KAILUA-KONA (AP) - After 14 years of serving the Big Island, financially strapped Japan Airlines has ended its flight between Tokyo and Kona International Airport.
Passengers arriving Friday on JAL Flight 70 from Narita International Airport were greeted with lei and live Hawaiian music, the Big Island Visitors Bureau said.
JAL offered the only direct international flight outside of North America to the Big Island, the bureau said. Since the inaugural Kona flight in June 1996, JAL has carried more than 980,000 visitors between Narita and Kona, it said.
''It is also a vital carrier of Big Island exports including macadamia nuts, papayas, coffee, spirulina, abalone and desalinated sea water to the Japanese market,'' the bureau said in a news release.
''The JAL flight is without a doubt the most important international route for Hawaii island. The positive impact it has made on our economy for the last 14 years is highly significant, and we truly hope to welcome JAL back someday,'' George Applegate, the bureau's executive director said.
JAL filed for bankruptcy protection in January with more than $25 billion in debt. In August, the airline announced a restructuring that included cutting its work force 30 percent, securing financing and dropping unprofitable domestic and international routes. The restructuring culminated years of difficulty for the airline battered by safety lapses, ballooning pension payments and intensifying global competition.
''JAL recognizes and deeply appreciates the invaluable support of the Big Island and Kona community for the past 14 years, and also how necessary and vital this support is for a successful restructuring,'' said Dan Yanagihara, JAL's Kona station manager.
''I, too, am hoping for a speedy recovery for Japan Airlines, and hopefully with it, the company could reconsider the possibility of serving the Big Island community once again,'' Yanagihara said.
The Big Island Visitors Bureau quoted the Hawaii Tourism Authority as saying 164,745 Japanese travelers visited the Big Island in 2009.
Departing passengers on JAL Flight 79 were also sent off with flower lei and Hawaiian music, and as a farewell gesture, fire trucks sprayed the aircraft with streams of water.