How Virgin America Will Fly A320s to Hawai’i When Nobody Else Has Even Tried

Virgin America

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.

Virgin America Goes to Hawai'i

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.

[Original photo via Chris Parypa Photography /]

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67 comments on “How Virgin America Will Fly A320s to Hawai’i When Nobody Else Has Even Tried

  1. I just hope Virgin has done its math correctly and really has a good handle on weather conditions enroute… Not from a safety standpoint, as I trust things will be safe, but from a PR standpoint. If a plane ever encounters strong unexpected headwinds enroute and has to turn back due to concerns about not having enough fuel at the halfway mark, there will be a LOT of ruined vacations, angry pax, and so on.

    That said, if they are confident they can make it work, by all means, go for it.

  2. VX continues to make moves that make me “scratch my head.” From the outside, it appears they want to fly places for ego more than profit.

    Hawaii is ultra-competitive, mostly lower-yielding leisure travelers, that requires a subfleet, ETOPS certification program and standards, and new airplanes, and is long haul which takes up more aircraft time. Was that really the lowest hanging fruit?

    1. SFOHNL is higher yielding than any other transcon they fly other than JFKLAX. The subfleet is a cost issue but calling it low yield is incorrect.

      1. good info, I didn’t know. Assumed between leisure / competition. Any idea how “average” SFOHNL yields compare to other routes in the VX network? Assuming the LA crowd would need a discount to connect over all the nonstop options.

        I would have guessed, if the goal was to lose money, do it in DAL, ORD, ATL, or somewhere a business following might one day lead to real profits. If the goal is profit, certainly Caribbean, mexico, south america has easier choices that dont require costs of an ETOPS program.

        1. My calc was a bit off so the market yield in SFOHNL is middle of the road compared to VX’s transcon network. However, I expect VX to outperform since they will take a whole lot less free seats. e.g. in JFKLAX, VX has 1.2% free while other airlines are close to 10%.

    2. This is a perfect fit for them. Their business model is to go into competitive, long-haul routes with a better product than the legacy carriers. That is why they are doing so well on LAX-JFK, LAX-BOS, etc. They aren’t Spirit or Allegiant, so they aren’t going after “low-hanging fruit”.

  3. Over the years I have flown to Hawaii dozens of times on just about every type of plane making the flight. The very best (back in the day) was the United 747. That was when the journey was as enjoyable as the destination. The worst have been (and still are) the Hawaiian 767 and American 757, mostly because they are aging, dirty and tired aircraft. (They don’t even have time to fix broken seats or tray tables on these planes.)

    Continental’s 767 & 777s weren’t bad, but the experience was generally ruined by rude and unpleasant customer service staff and flight attendants. I finally swore never-again for Continental and to this day will still book any configuration possible to avoid the new United.

    I haven’t flown Virgin America yet (anywhere) but I’m inclined to give their A320 a try. The lower density might make it more pleasant than the overcrowded Greyhounds that usually fly to Hawaii now. And I’m happy about anything that makes the trip less uncomfortable.

    1. Yup, the now-retired UA 747-200s were the bomb flying to HNL. In F class, they covered the center island with champagne glasses and lei petals. It was quite festive. Glad I got many trips in on that bird in the “good ole days”. Flying today sucks. And I agree, I never understood why CO got so many service-related accolades. Every time I flew them, the service was middling at best. About the same as pre merger UA.

  4. It’s just another move by VX that makes no sense. You already have UA with multiple flights a day from SFO to OGG and HNL, and then DL still does SFO – HNL. HA has widebodies on these routes and flies them from SJC and OAK. Also, there is AS flying to all the islands from OAK and SJC. There is plenty of competition and while VX thinks they are a premium airline, I don’t see it that way. They still have bag fees and no free snacks in Y. Plus they charge a lot for exit row and bulkhead seats, which I can get the same seats on UA, DL, and AS for much less.

    Besides, most people book airfare on price and price only.

    What does US fly from LIH/KOA to PHX before the AA merger? I thought it was an Airbus.

    1. To this day – and as far back as my memory will go – US flies 757s from PHX to its four Hawaiian destinations.

      1. Long, long, long ago in a Galaxy far, far, far away an Airline called America West flew 747-200’s PHX-HNL. Of course after mergers, bankruptcies etc today it’s AA.

    2. “There is plenty of competition and while VX thinks they are a premium airline, I don’t see it that way. They still have bag fees and no free snacks in Y. Plus they charge a lot for exit row and bulkhead seats, which I can get the same seats on UA, DL, and AS for much less. ”

      I don’t get it either. Went SFO-FLL in December, UA there and VX back. What’s the difference? Trendy mood lighting. The annoying nickle and dime fees were the same both ways. VX just has the hype, that’s all.

      1. For a while, VX was the youngest airline with the newest aircraft and flight attendants, and the only one with WiFi and power on every plane, and got quite a bit of positive customer response as a result.

        The problem is, for the most part, the other airlines have caught up, buying tons of new planes. Perhaps the legacies’ FAs aren’t as young and friendly, but their airframes are not really new anymore. I flew SFO-LAS last Christmas and their fleet seemed… tired(!). They don’t have an extra legroom section, etc.

        However, I don’t think customer perception has caught up to the reality. Travelers that only occasionally travel are wowed by the vibe, mood lighting, and young friendly service. For them, a simple experience is all they’re asking for. The legacies still feel “old” and their more complex fleets means during IRROPS life can be complicated.

        It turns out there’s enough such passengers on the market. My guess is, they’re going for the same crowd on the Hawaii route.

    3. southbay flier – Other than the ill-fated 747 fights that George mentioned (which were really about a even worse idea – flying to Nagoya – and couldn’t make it nonstop), America West/US Airways has only flown 757s from Phoenix. (Your memory is good, MT.)

  5. last time i flew OGG-SFO on a UA 757-300 we had to dump 12 passengers off the plane because of weight/fuel/wind issues…should be interesting to see how many times that will occur with an A320…

    1. “Dump 12 passengers off the plane”? Was that at about the half way mark, when the pilots realized that the plane wouldn’t make it unless the load was lightened by 12? Now I’m really worried about having lost elite status with all airlines…!

  6. From an in flight amenity and experience standpoint, if budget dictates that you have to go coach, wouldn’t you rather fly Virgin America than anyone else on that route? And adding Hawaii as a destination you can earn points to or burn points on makes their Elevate frequent flier program that much more attractive.

    1. I’d rather fly AS whenever possible. I think their service is better and they give out free mai tais in Y. HA has widebodies which are nice as well.

  7. SFO isn’t the greatest airport to use when bad weather hits, I wonder how many of those westbound flights will find themselves landing at OAK or SJC for fuel before heading to SFO.

    1. You mean eastbound from Hawaii, right?

      It doesn’t really matter from a fuel perspective… SFO ground delays hold flights at their origin when fog/rain comes up. And the eastbound will likely need less fuel anyway.

      1. Yes I meant eastbound, forgot that in this case, I’m in the eastbound state and not the westbound state….lol

  8. Interesting developments here! Here’s hoping for everyone’s sake that Virgin America did their math correctly. It would be pretty amazing if they do manage it!

  9. I’m generally not a fan of testing the range of an aircraft…over the vast pacific ocean that just seems crazy. Over the winter I flew MSP-LIR on a 737-800 which was well within the range of the Boeing, but by far my longest flight on that type. The plane was so heavy at takeoff I was worried we would run out of runway. Can’t imagine an A320 loaded to the gills would be much different. I’m no aerospace engineer but here is where the 757 just seems like it was ahead of its time. Until we get equivalent range out of a modern narrowbody I’ll stick with the old tried and true when flying over those lonely stretches of the planet.

    From a business standpoint, well, not sure what VX is thinking. Must have some serious high value fliers demanding a good place to burn awards?

  10. I’m as baffled as the rest of you all about this announcement. I would love to peek at their numbers to see how, in what parallel universe, these routes make economic sense. Their ops people have done their homework on the tech aspects. …..bit marketing division seems to be out of lunch.
    IMHO using this enhanced range scheme would make more sense in Cali-central american/south American markets.

  11. “…click, click…Good morning dear customers. Today with us up front is Capt. Sulley Sullenberger!”

    “…ah, dear attendant? Have you closed the doors yet?”

  12. Does anyone besides BA with the A318s even have an ETOPS Airbus narrowbody? Because if no one has why is Airbus not doing a big PR campaign on this

    1. good question. I assume you are referring to the banker shuttle from JFK to LCY. It’s a great flight but remember it only has 32 seats…

      my thoughts are that they would rather be campaigning the A320neo rather than a promoting an ETOPS A320…

      1. Jeremy Yes-AC does a daily rotation YYT-LHR. Also on the BA 318 Banker shuttle-going westbound that puppy stops at SNN to get gas-LCY’s runway is just too short for the load of fuel required to reach JFK

        1. Just remember, LCY – SNN – JFK, has Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland
          and Nova Soctia for diversion. Remember the mother of all disaster movies? “High and the Mighty” HNL – SFO

  13. I am not a nervous flyer by any means, but I have a problem with a plane flying across the Pacific without a decent fuel surplus. I would be very reluctant to fly Virgin America with myself and family from SFO to HNL.

    1. You’re not paying attention. They DO have the necessary fuel “surplus”. Its government mandated. That means enough to get there plus ENOUGH FOR CONTINGENCIES, and lots of other regulations to comply with to boot.

  14. To those wondering if this is the first use of an A320 ETOPS, no. I fly for Air NZ and we’ve used the 320 ETOPS/EDTO since about 2003. In fact today I am flying one on a 2000nm leg over water. It works just fine and at 149 pax should do it without too many restrictions. I’m sure Virginia have done their homework in this regard.

    1. Someone far more qualified than I got there before me on trans-Tasman flights. Presumably Jetstar and some of the South East Asian airlines must have ETOPS certified A320s as well.

  15. If they can make this work with a A320 out of SFO maybe they can add SNA/HNL? Aloha used to fly the route. Today, if you live in Orange County, you have to travel up to LAX for a Hawaii flight.

    Even better would be if AA with one of their new shiny A321Ts on the SNA/HNL route. Although there might be runway length issues at SNA with a fully loaded A321.

    Or Alaska Airlines…? :)

    1. You’re not going to see AA’s A321Ts on any other route. It’s a very unusual plane, and with 102 seats you need folks paying top fare for J and F to make a flight worth it. $2500 seats to Hawaii isn’t really going to fly. (The 102-seat layout does ensure better range, though.)

      I doubt the new management at AA would have ever put such a plane in service.

      Alaska is expanding out of SNA to Mexico — maybe /they/ will look at this route in the future, as they’ve hugely expanded their Hawaii presence from the West Coast (all 4 islands are now served from SAN, I believe). I’d think that’s a more likely bet, but even so it’s probably a long shot.

    2. Art K – I can’t imagine an A320 being able to get off the ground in Orange County with enough of a load to make it worthwhile. Maybe someone else with better technical knowledge can do the math, but I just can’t see it happening.

  16. The misinformation here is amazing. The Airbus 320 can make HNL with no problem. There will always be plenty of fuel reserves. The limiting factor is contingency fuel in case of a pressurization failure. Unlike the 737 it will not be required to run the APU over the ETOPS portion of the flight. It is no different than the 757/767 systems wise and they have been flying ETOPS to Hawaii for years.

    There may be a few days a year that payload might be restricted due to winds and max takeoff weight considerations but that is the exception. I know, I flew HNL and OGG a lot, so let’s tone down the gloom and doom Airbus rhetoric.

    1. IIRC, the 320 does not have the same range as the 737NG planes, so it can be an issue. While the 320 has the range in ideal conditions, once there is a stiff headwind going to Hawaii, it can be a bit tricky.

  17. The issue is almost never range, it is can you fly a commercially viable payload at that range. For example QF flew a 747-400 nonstop from London to Sydney. The aircraft only had a handful of people on board. The 777-200LR can also fly London-Sydney, but can only carry about 90 pax. Some years ago I met a captain for a major airline who handled deliveries from Boeing. A 737-800 with no passengers can actually make SEA-LHR. These three missions are far beyond the realistic commercial range for these aircraft, but are possible if you make the weight low enough. Generally filing the tanks takes out a hefty chunk for the Maximum Zero Fuel Weight.

    The whole point of both the A340-500 and 747SP was reducing the OEW while retaining the original fuel carriage. The economics on these operations are horrible. SQ’s EWR and LAX SIN flights could only provide about 185 seats, and NO F cabin. The F cabin was too heavy.

    The question is how large a payload hit do you take, and is what you are left with a commercially viable load? 757-200’s are almost unique in that filling the tanks produces a surprisingly small hit on MZFW. By contast fill the tanks on some 777-200ER’s and you are actually above MGTOW before the first passenger can board.

  18. As PedroPat states, the A320(especially the sharklet equipped) should do this sector with few restrictions. As an example, today I flew a non-sharklet 320 configured with 168 seats on an EDTO/ETOPS sector. The route was about 2050nm (almost exactly the SFO-HNL dist) we had an average head wind of about 70 knots for an ESAD(equivalent still air distance) of 2383nm(From memory). Our ZFW was 57.1 and 120 pax and a fuel load of 17.5t. Our TOW was 74.4(2.6 below max). With only 149 seats virgin should be able to fill all of them and come in below MTOW. The only significant difference the HNL flights have is that you only have end points (departure and destination) for your ETP so that requires a little more fuel to cover depressurised flight on one engine (ETP1D) which will be limting scenario at these weights.
    TLDR: it can do it!

      1. SNA is 1738m which, without having a takeoff data program or my FCOM, would be a little short. You probably need another 300m I would guess.

      2. You have to remember that the issue with SNA, aside from the short runway, is noise. You could load up a jet to go SNA – HNL/OGG and make the take off data work, however the noise sensors off the end of the runway will trigger. So, the people in The OC need to ask them selves, do we want convenient flights, or quiet departures using questionable tactics to make the departure quiet and not trigger the sensors?

    1. Actually the fuel has to cover getting to ETP halfway point, then depressurized on TWO engines at 10000 feet for the remainder of the flight. Two engines at low altitude burn a whole lot more than one!

  19. IN the early 70’s I was furloughed from a Major west coast airline and went to work for world airways, the Largest charter airline in the world at that time.
    I flew the B-727/100 from oak-Hnl nonstop in 5Hrs 48 Mins we landed with 4500 lbs of fuel about 5 mins worth of fuel at sea level in that A/C, we had 102 Marines on board with all there gear headed to Vietnam.
    needless to say a lot of Pucker Factor there!!! We had to get FAA approval for every trip!!!
    This was long before anyone ever dreamed of ETOPS Etc!!

    1. according to wiki, the capacity is 7680 gallons so 4500lb is about 8.5% of the capacity. that sounds like more than 5 minutes, am I missing something?

  20. if you are worried about the 20 making it to hawaii. check out british airways. they fly an a319 from jfk to lcy. that’s new york city to london city. the jfk to lhr route is a 747 or a 777 and they have the 787 on the ewr to lhr. even virgin atlantic usess a340’s and a330’s for that route.

    1. The A319 is really a reduced OEW A320, with A320 fuel carriage. It and the A318 both have
      considerably longer legs than the A320 as a result. I also point out that JFK to LCY is almost always going to have a substantial tail wind. LCY-JFK cannot be flown because the runway at LCY isn’t long enough for a high TOW operation in an A320 or 737NG

  21. Don’t know if this has been said yet – but the press release about the route has multiple mentions about how Elevate members want the route. I guess they see it as a vacation destination for frequent business travelers (who seem to be the target for VA these days).

    1. that’s fine that their FF’s want it, but people dont choose VX for Elevate. It is a very expensive route to add (since it takes a lot of aircraft time, and the whole ETOPS program is a big investment with little other use) if there isn’t a huge or guaranteed payoff, and it is surprising to a lot of us because it seemed there were other opportunities to either make money or invest for future business traffic. Wish them the best of luck on the new route!

  22. This move by VX was a surprise. I am not an aerospace engineer, but it would strike me that if the flight encountered stronger headwinds, the ground speed would be reduced, even though the airspeed may remain constant. This would cause the flight to take longer to reach its destination and thereby burn more fuel. I would hope that VX has taken all of that into consideration. I certainly do not want to be one of the testing passengers on this flight as I do not see any financial advantage which is the only reason that I may choose a different airline in the first place.

    1. that is all taken into account as part of the dispatch process. It is why current flights make fuel stops (when apporopriate) or we see planes with payload restrictions – removing cargo or passengers by an amount that varies for each flight. There is no safety concern as much as a commercial one.

      IF this flight ends up capped or denied boardng often, its profitability is called into question. I don’t think there is a legitimate argument to be made about safety

  23. If they really wanted to make a statement and earn passengers on this route they would introduce a decent lay flat business and first product. It seems like most of the airlines want to see how stripped down or outdated of an aircraft they can put on Hawaii routes. I assume the thinking is that it’s just a bunch of tourist so we can give them old 757’s with 1990’s seating and IFE. A320’s and 737’s? Why not DC-9’s and MD-80’s. Sad I think.

  24. VX to Hawaii, buy why? No problem with the aircraft, but if they only have 4-5 ETOPS units on the property, any mechanical or other OS acft presents a big problem. The routes are currently well served with many convenient departures from SFO/SJC/OAK and SMF. UA (flying the route since 1946!) currently has 1100 seats daily in each direction to/from HNL, and this is their off season schedule; they go to 1300 seats in the summer. UA alone offers 640 seats daily SFO-OGG, and they have the power of many connecting flights at SFO to feed their aircraft. HA and AS offer a good service from the friendlier airports of SJC/OAK/SMF, with HA flying 767’s. UA/AA/DL offer nonstop HNL
    service from DFW/DEN/ORD/EWR/IAD/ATL/SLC/PHX offering travelers service bypassing SFO. A quick look at VX fares see no real deals or discounts from existing fares. ’nuff said…

  25. BA actually uses an even smaller A318 on JFK-LCY but the aircraft only has 32 seats and likely do not hold heavy cargo.

    I like that VX is going outside the box with SFO-HNL. If it doesn’t work out, they can always retreat. The current market leaders are using aircrafts with older onboard products (especially AA) and service (AA and UA no longer have a good Hawaiian specific menu). VX will inject a refresh take and force the leaders to take a second look at their products. I had like to know whether VX would be able to get decent feeder traffic from its airline partners.

    As for technical challenges, FAA would not approve the flight if they believe the A320 would present significant safety issues.

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