We’ve heard rumors about it for years, and now it’s finally going to happen. Virgin America will start flying from San Francisco to Honolulu on November 2 and from San Francisco to Kahului (Maui) on December 3 with A320 aircraft. As far as I know, this is the first attempt to fly A320s from the West Coast to Hawai’i in scheduled service. Aircraft range has always been an issue. Virgin America, however, thinks it has the answer.
Flying from the West Coast to Hawai’i might not seem like it should be a challenge for an A320. After all, San Francisco to Boston is a good 300 miles further than Honolulu, and that flight is regularly scheduled on the Airbus. But if you’ve ever flown on an A320 heading west from Boston in the winter, you know that on occasion you’ll need to stop for fuel. You don’t have that luxury on the way to Hawai’i, so rules are much more strict.
The long stretch of water from the west coast to Hawai’i is one of the loneliest in the world. You’re talking about over 2,000 miles with nothing around, certainly not a place to land in an emergency. Because of that, airplanes flying over long distances without an airport nearby have to obey special rules.
You might have heard of ETOPS, which refers to Extended range Twin engine Operation Performance Standards. This now actually applies to aircraft with more engines as well, but the point of it is to create an added safety margin. This isn’t like the rules for standard overwater flying where you just need life vests and rafts. That’s what you need when you’re still near land (like flying over the Atlantic from the Northeast to Florida or crossing the Gulf of Mexico). This is totally different.
There is a great deal involved in certification, and Virgin America has already been working on it. While much of that doesn’t impact the range of the aircraft, there is something that has a dramatic impact. Flights to Hawai’i have to carry enough fuel for the airplane to lose an engine at the halfway point and limp back on the other engine alone to the nearest airport (whether that’s Hawai’i or the West Coast just depends where the airplane is). In other words, airplanes don’t just need enough fuel for the trip but they need a lot more in reserve.
That rule is pretty comforting from a passenger standpoint, but it means that an A320 with a full load of passengers and tanks full of fuel just won’t have the range to make it to Hawai’i under the rules. Sure, if you only fill half the seats and top off the tanks, then you’ll probably be able to get there, but you’ll lose a ton of money. You see 737s flying to Hawai’i and the new A320neo promises to make it with ease, but the current generation A320? Nope… until now.
So what is it that Virgin America has figured out? Here are a few things.
- Engine technology has improved since the early days of the A320. To be fair, it’s been a long time since aircraft were delivered with the early model engines (the IAE V2500-A1 and the CFM 56-5A), but even newer engines become more efficient through various tweaks over time.
- Sharklets are actually the biggest catalyst for Virgin America here. Nearly every A320 until recent times was delivered with little wingtip fences that went up and down off the end of the wing. But the new sharklets are blended winglets that are much bigger. They’re also great for boosting fuel efficiency, and that means the A320 can boost its range without needing more fuel.
- A low-density configuration is also important. Virgin America has only 149 seats on its A320s. United and US Airways each have 1 more than that. Delta’s new configuration has 160 seats. Allegiant packs in 177 seats while Spirit gets to 178. People weigh a lot, and if Virgin America had more seats onboard, it probably couldn’t fly this route reliably.
- Virgin America is flying the shortest routes out there. You might be surprised to know that SFO to Honolulu is just under 2,400 miles. Even LA to Honolulu is 150 miles further than that.
Adding it all up, Virgin America says it can make this work. There had been talk about the airline adding auxiliary fuel tanks, but the airline tells me that’s not needed. New aircraft deliveries are starting up soon after a long lull, and the next 5 off the line will be ETOPS-certified with sharklets so they can make the trip.
Whether it’s a good commercial decision or not remains to be seen. That’s a small subfleet taking up a lot of aircraft time. (I’m surprised most of these aren’t redeyes, which would make for great utilization flying while the airplanes go elsewhere during the day.) Apparently this is where Virgin America thinks is its best opportunity to put new aircraft. That in itself is interesting. But at least now, the issue isn’t one of technical limitations.