There is probably no other airline in the United States that takes its home culture more seriously than Hawaiian Airlines. With 85 years under its belt, Hawaiian had always been one of those carriers that fascinated me. For years, it was focused on interisland travel. It slowly grew into mainland flying, and then during the last few years it exploded throughout the Pacific… with mixed results. So when I was asked if I’d like to come visit with the management team for a couple of days, I jumped at the chance.
[Disclosure: Hawaiian provided flights and accommodation]
I had expected the Hawaiian culture to play an important part in the airline, but I didn’t realize how deep it would go. I’m not just talking about traditional Hawaiian culture, and even the executives are not immune. Case in point? Just before our interview, CEO Mark Dunkerley was stung by a box jellyfish while surfing. He lasted only a few minutes with me before having to be whisked off to the hospital, apparently having an allergic reaction. (They gave him a shot, and he was on a flight to Japan later that day.)
As I’ve done with previous installments in this series with both Korean and United, I’ll go in chronological order through my visit so you can really get a sense of how it all felt for me. To start, of course, I had to sample the product to get there in the first place.
Hawaiian’s presence in LA stretches back 30 years, and it’s the mainstay of the airline’s mainland operation. Today, Hawaiian operates 3 daily flights to Honolulu, 1 to Kahului (Maui), and it’s now trying seasonal flying to both Kona (Big Island) and Lihue (Kauai). It actually has a small, 80-person flight attendant base in LA that staffs many of these flights. Flight attendants fly out to Honolulu and back in one, long day. But they seem to like it, because they get to sleep in their beds most nights.
I had been sent my confirmations long in advance, and I logged on to snag myself a window seat. When I went to check in online, I saw my seat had been moved up to seat 11J in the first row of coach. This is part of the new Extra Comfort section. When I tried to check in, the system tried to charge me for the seat, and I couldn’t move back to my original. A quick note to my PR contact Alison noted that she was trying to upgrade me, and I should just see an agent.
I left home early since it was rush hour, but also because I knew I’d need to talk to an agent. I parked at QuikPark (which has finally reopened near the Radisson at LAX) and was at the ticket counter with more than an hour to spare. It was busy there, but I made my way up front quickly. I was told to talk to the special services agent at counter 9. Considering the numbers were all in the 60s and 70s, I thought I was lost. Then I realized that the 6 on counter 69 had worn off. Hence, it became counter 9.
She checked me in easily and I sailed through security into a dingy Terminal 2. This terminal, the former home of airlines like Pan Am and Northwest, is now primarily for international travel, and it’s in desperate need of attention. Fortunately, the airport is working on that. Hopefully they start with the nasty bathrooms.
I went to the gate and waited until it was time to board. Hawaiian is old school. None of this boarding group garbage. The agents there still go by straight row numbers. Being in row 11, I boarded toward the end. Once I passed that threshold, my Hawaiian experience began.
June 23, 2014
Hawaiian 1 Lv Los Angeles 9a Arr Honolulu 1135a
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 27, Runway 24L, Depart On Time
Honolulu (HNL): Gate 33, Runway 8L, Arrive On Time
N373HA, Airbus A330-243, Standard Hawaiian colors, ~95% Full
Seat 11J, Extra Comfort coach
Flight Time 5h16m
Part of Hawaiian’s pitch to travelers is that it can extend your Hawaiian vacation. Your time on the airplane is increasingly like any other flight on most other carriers. But on Hawaiian, you feel like you’re in Hawai’i while you’re onboard. (I think that’s how it used to be on United before the service was gutted.)
When I boarded, a flight attendant in an Aloha shirt greeted me with a smile and directed me to my seat. On the A330, you board through the second door, and because the First Class cabin is relatively small, you get to turn left if you’re in the first three rows of coach.
That is why this is becoming Extra Comfort. They pulled the bulkhead out between coach and First Class and put a curtain in. That allowed them to increase legroom in those three rows, creating a premium offering. (The exit row back at door 3 is also Extra Comfort.) The fleet is still being fully reconfigured right now, so Extra Comfort is only sold at check-in for $40 on the west coast flights. For travel beginning August 1, you can pre-purchase for $60 on west coast flights.
My aircraft was fully configured in the new layout, and it was nice. Row 11 has a crazy amount of legroom and with no bulkhead, it still has storage under the seat in front. The only downside? The tray and the in-seat video in the arm aren’t exactly ideal.
But what is good is that these seats all have 110V power ports. When the product officially launches in August, it will also have priority security and boarding, a pillow and blanket, and free TV (excluding new release movies). On international flights, there will be an upgraded meal as well. So unlike most extra legroom seats, there is more of a product built around this.
We took off into the remains of the morning marine layer and were quickly into bright sunshine. My favorite thing about the Hawai’i flights? You just take off and keep going. The airplane barely turns the entire time.
As soon as we were above 10,000 feet, I pulled out my in-seat video player and started poking around. There was a slightly out-of-date history of the airline (touting new service to Taipei… which has already been canceled) and a bunch of movie and TV options. I flipped on a movie and stared out at the wide open ocean. There is no airplane full of happier people than one flying to Hawai’i.
Shortly after, it was time for our free meal. Say what? Yeah, apparently in Hawai’i, you can’t enter someone else’s home without being offered food. It’s a sign of hospitality, and Hawaiian felt it important to do the same for its customers. But it’s not going to do it quietly. You’ll hear an announcement proudly proclaiming that Hawaiian is the only domestic airline to offer free food.
The morning meal is pretty skimpy. It’s just fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, and a chocolate-covered macadamia nut. But somehow it still seemed like a bounty compared to my usual expectations. They used to allow people to pay for a premium meal, but the uptake wasn’t great and they couldn’t make it work out very well so they cut it. I was told later they are looking for ways to bring something like that back if they can.
After the service was done, they announced the opening of the Pau Hana store. Pau Hana means the time after work, when you socialize and relax with friends. The store is opened up in the galley area behind the Extra Comfort section and kept open for hours. There is a bunch of food in there (all shelf stable) and things like a pillow and blanket kit. The flight attendants welcomed people steadily throughout the flight, to my surprise. I spoke with them briefly and they said they do a pretty brisk business.
Once my movie was done, we were hours from land in any direction and cruising along in smooth air. I thought about another movie, but I started to get into the spirit of Hawai’i and opted for music. They have a bunch of music channels, and I settled on Territorial Airwaves, with music from the time before Hawai’i became a state. I kicked back and stared out the window, feeling fairly relaxed considering I wouldn’t get much time to do that once on the ground.
We got closer to the islands and it was time for the second service. Hawaiian serves a bag of Maui chips (though these are nothing compared to the best Maui chips on Earth, Kitch’n Cook’d) and a drink. I could have had a rum punch, but I opted for POG juice instead. Taking a swig of POG (passion, orange, guava), instantly brings me back to my childhood. This stuff has been served on interisland flights for as long as I can remember. And that’s pretty much the only time I drink it.
Unfortunately, I was on the right side so I couldn’t get that first glimpse of a volcano off in the distance signifying the beginning of the end of our journey. But the flight attendants came on shortly after descent and started giving a lengthy history of the islands. Apparently this used to be scripted long ago but it’s not mandatory anymore. Many (if not most) flight attendants still love it and like giving an audio tour as you pass by the Big Island, Maui, and Moloka’i on the way in to Honolulu.
We flew in over Kaneohe and then descended with that glorious view of Diamond Head and Waikiki. We looped around and came in for a landing. I had a very strange feeling as we touched down. Usually landing in paradise meant the beginning of a vacation, but this time, it meant it was time for me to get to work.
We parked at gate 33 at the far end of the Ewa concourse and only then did I realize what a weird layout Honolulu has. I’ll write more about that and the future plans at the airport in a later post.
Alison picked me up and whisked me off to the headquarters building, which is right across from the terminal. Tomorrow I’ll have more on that visit, along with my flight in the airline’s very first airplane… 85 years ago.
Other posts from my 72 hours with Hawaiian Airlines:
72 Hours with Hawaiian: A Unique Headquarters Setup, Flying Hawaiian’s Very First Airplane
72 Hours With Hawaiian: Across the Aisle From President and CEO Mark Dunkerley
72 Hours with Hawaiian: Meeting with Execs, Flying ‘Ohana by Hawaiian
72 Hours with Hawaiian Airlines: The Honolulu International Airport Modernization Plan
72 Hours With Hawaiian Airlines: Talking to Flight Ops, the Ride Home in First Class