Former Hawaiian Airlines CEO Mark Dunkerley Discusses Importance of Adapting to International Cultures

Dunkerley speaking next to moderator.

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Georgetown McDonough welcomed Mark Dunkerley, former CEO of Hawaiian Airlines, on February 10 to discuss his role in expanding Hawaiian Airlines from a domestic airline to an international one. The event was moderated by Professor Pietra Rivoli and sponsored by the Stanton Distinguished Leaders Series. 

Dunkerley led Hawaiian Airlines for 15 years and witnessed firsthand the difficulties of being in the airline industry. “It’s a business which is naturally unstable. It’s a business in which you have very high average costs and very low marginal costs. We are a business which has traditionally had very slender margins,” he said. 

Due to the competitive nature of the industry, Dunkerley emphasized the importance of creating brand loyalty and consistent flyers. “Even at a time when every U.S. airline was taking food off the airplane, we continued. It was unjustifiable on a spreadsheet. There was no math that justified $25 million worth of food. What it did was give our frontline employees the tools with which they could express their natural cultural desire to deliver hospitality to guests on board,” Dunkerley said.

For Dunkerley, too many American companies try to force people outside the United States to adapt to American culture rather than having the company itself adapt to other cultures. He gave the example of Australia, where the process for planning a vacation is distinct. 

“By far the largest channel of distribution for air travel in Australia is brick and mortar travel agencies. It is a very similar culture ostensibly [to the United States] but with a very different way of approaching the process,” he said.

Dunkerley also discussed Hawaiian Airlines’ international expansion during his time as CEO. 

“Over the last 15 years we’ve expanded pretty aggressively in Asia, so we went from being effectively a domestic airline into a largely international one. We flew to nine to 10 different countries around Asia, many of them very different from the United States, for example, Japan, Korea, and China. We were successful in some countries and not so successful in others,” he said. 

At the end of the discussion, Rivoli asked Dunkerley about advice for students in the audience. 

“The thing that is an added dimension and interest to my life more broadly than getting up in the morning, going to work, and coming home in the evening has been the opportunity in my life to live and work and manage in different countries around the world. And that’s an enormous privilege,” he said. “I would certainly encourage people to think about taking the opportunity to live, work, and participate as a global citizen.”