Hawaiian’s New Premium Cabin Flat Bed and Additional Extra Comfort Seating is a Calculated Move


Earlier this week, Hawaiian Airlines announced it would be rolling out flat beds in its premium cabin (sold as First domestically and Business internationally), and it would double the size of its Extra Comfort section. This might seem like the airline is just catching up to what other carriers have done, but there’s a lot behind this move. The airline’s shifting fleet, its changing network, and specific requirements for a flat bed all came together to make this a possibility. I was at the roll-out during Hawaiian’s Global Media Day and learned more about the thinking behind this change.

[Disclosure: Hawaiian provided flights to Honolulu as well as hotel for two nights.]

Hawaiian First From Behind

Today, the flagship of the Hawaiian long haul fleet is the A330. Yes, there are still some 767s around, but that fleet is shrinking, and only a handful will stick around for a few more years. The A330 today has 246 236 coach seats, 30 40 Extra Comfort seats (extra legroom and a few amenities included), and 18 First/Business seats for a total of 294. This is a pretty dense configuration for an A330-200. Air France, for example, has 40 Business, 21 premium economy, and 147 coach for a total of only 208.

The key, of course, is that Hawaiian has only 18 premium cabin seats, and they’re sort of like a domestic recliner-style seat on steroids. Sure it’s better than you get domestically on most other airlines, but it’s still well below what you find as an international standard.

For years, this configuration made the most sense. After all, Hawaiian was primarily a Hawai’i-Mainland US carrier (excluding the short-haul interisland network, of course). And on those flights of 5 to 6 hours, this was a good configuration.

Over the last few years, however, Hawaiian has expanded its footprint dramatically. Yes the West Coast is still important, but it now flies to New York, a full 10+ hours from Honolulu. More importantly it has service to 3 cities in Australia/New Zealand, 3 cities in Japan, Seoul/Incheon, and Beijing. Flights have gotten longer, and the need for a more substantial onboard experience has grown.

After a couple of years of evaluation, Hawaiian has finally revealed its new plans. For those who can afford it, the flat beds up front will be excellent, but there will still only be 18 of them. At the same time, Hawaiian will more than nearly double its Extra Comfort section, going from 30 40 to 68 seats. Coach will shrink to 192. That means the airline will have 16 fewer seats (two rows of coach) than it has today.

How will they make up for the loss of 16 seats? It has to be both in terms of higher premium cabin fares as well as more upsells into Extra Comfort. Even though Hawaiian says space in regular coach isn’t changing, I’m suspicious.

In the forward cabin today, there are 18 First/Business seats and 24 Extra Comfort seats in 3 rows of 8. In this new configuration, there will still be 18 up front but only 12 Extra Comfort behind. That means that in the back two cabins, where there will be the bulk of the Extra Comfort seats, there will only be a net loss of 4 seats. That doesn’t seem possible without cutting space elsewhere. I guess we’ll see.

This seems like a lot of Extra Comfort seating, but they say they sell 85 to 90 percent of those seats today and they expect to be able to fill even more of them. But while Extra Comfort’s expansion is interesting, it’s the premium cabin that sees the biggest change.

Hawaiian’s new First/Business seats will be fully flat beds, but they will not have direct aisle access in the traditional sense. Seating will be 2-2-2 across. This, however, is entirely by design. Direct aisle access is often provided by making each seat its own cocoon. It’s meant for the individual business traveler who wants to be alone. But on Hawaiian, are fewer business travelers and more couples and families. So the airline wanted a seat that could accommodate people who actually wanted to be together.

Hawaiian New First Cabin

Now here’s the trick. In the sections on the sides, the end of the ottoman where the bed ends has a gap between it and the seat in front. So the person in the window can sneak out, even if someone is sleeping in the bed position. That gap doesn’t exist in the center section because everyone is already on the aisle there.

Hawaiian New A330 Seat Map

Now what you have is a configuration that’s better suited to the long haul traveler with flat beds up front and more Extra Comfort seats for those behind. But how does that make sense for all these flights to the mainland? Shouldn’t they have just created separate fleets? I asked both Chief Commercial Officer Peter Ingram and Brent Overbeek, VP of Network and Revenue Management about that. They studied it, but it wasn’t a good option for several reasons.

First and most obvious, there’s added complexity to having a subfleet. Second, it hamstrings scheduling. Sometimes it makes sense to have an airplane route from Asia to Honolulu and then over to the mainland. They didn’t want to lose that. Third, there are only 18 seats so it’s not an enormous cabin. They think they can still sell this well on some mainland markets.

But possibly one of the biggest drivers here is the impending introduction of the A321neo. This airplane comes in 2017, and will be used for Hawai’i-mainland flying. Some flying will be growth, yes, but it will also go on some routes where widebodies must be used today. So you can expect that thinner routes that might not be able to support an A330 with flat beds will now have the option of an A321neo. And that means the A330s can be better focused on existing and new markets that can support the new configuration.

This whole change has been thought through over and over again. It seems like the airline has made a smart move, but we won’t really know until it goes into service. The first airplane should start flying in the second quarter of next year. Then the conversion goes into full swing after next summer. It’ll be done by mid-2017.

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18 comments on “Hawaiian’s New Premium Cabin Flat Bed and Additional Extra Comfort Seating is a Calculated Move

  1. I think this is all really smart. I flew the JFK-HNL flight shortly after it launched. I flew to HNL in Extra Comfort and back to JFK in First. EC was excellent – good room for a day flight, great food, happy crew. The redeye back in First was miserable – and I can’t begin to imagine what that’s like in Coach. Flat beds will be tremendous here, assuming it’s not a giant fare increase.

  2. From the photos, I noticed that the seats do not have Personal TVs installed: they appear to still just have shared TVs….

    1. Outer Space Guy – There is an arm in the seat that comes out and will hold tablets that the airline will pass out.

      1. I haven’t flown Hawaiin. And I’m all for BYOD IFE (weight and cost savings), but on long haul, I like seatback options. Will there be power outlets throughout the plane? hosted content like Delta Studio?

        1. noahkimmel – It isn’t bring your own IFE. In First, you have a tablet handed out with content. In Extra Comfort/coach, there is still embedded IFE, though it is pay to play. No wifi yet, though when that happens I’d expect we might see a streaming option. As for power, it’s only in First and Extra Comfort. In coach there is just USB power.

          1. The more and more I think about it, the more and more I’m confused by this tablet on an arm thing. Are they putting it on the arm because it is easier than putting the screen in as an integral part of the seat? Whats the rationale behind it?

            Does it perhaps help with being able to position one screen for two people to watch it at the same time?

            It seems like its just an odd choice.

            1. Nick – Not quite sure. I think they probably just didn’t have enough room in the design for a full system, so this was the best they could come up with.

  3. Sounds like DL is trying to catch up to what other international carriers to Hawaii have been offering to try and keep business.

  4. I’m skeptical of the little pass through.. It seems like its too narrow of a space to walk through comfortably.

    Also, did the HA folks say anything about a 717 replacement? I know they’ve got a bunch more life in them, but those birds will cycle out at some point, and the Hawaiian inter-island routes are exceptionally harsh on other airplanes.

    1. Nick – Actually there was a lot of talk about the 717 replacement. There isn’t one. Everyone at the airline seems to agree that the 717 is the perfect airplane for them, and no current manufacturer makes an airplane that can do the high number of cycles they need. So they are going to just keep running the 717s until someone makes an airplane that works for them.
      Considering it’s a Douglas airplane, they probably have 30 years left…

      1. Good point on the 30 years.. Maybe they’ll end up picking up Delta’s 717s when they’re done with the fleet, they could work them out a little more into the bone.

      2. Do they really need jets in Hawaii, wouldn’t turbo jets work better with those short runs?

        1. David SF – I don’t think they make props big enough for them. The biggest ones they make are the Q400s which won’t crack 80 seats. The 717s are over 120.

        2. It’s not just passenger count. They need room for things like surf boards and baggage. And there’s a number of passengers of size that would have trouble squeezing into the narrower seats and reduced pitch on many turboprops. From a economics standpoint a prop might make sense if there were civilian turboprops big enough, but the Q400 is as big as they currently get.

      3. Enter the CSeries. The CS100 is perfect as a 717 replacement. Geared Turbofans are (theoretically) more suited to more cycles. Or they could always abuse some 319NEOs as an option too.

  5. Size wise the perfect aircraft for hawaiian is the E-195E2. But i do not know how capable this aircraft is to handle the high cycle operation by hawaiian. Also turboprops are not a bad idea as they would help to increase frequency and trim capacity more apropriately

    1. The E190 has an 80,000 cycle limit. The 717 has a 110,000 cycle limit. That seems to be a fairly significant difference. Although, AFAIK, the problem that the other operators ran into with 737 classics and next gen inter-island was the flights were too short for the engines. That being said the generation of airframe that’ll replace the 717s has not yet been launched by the manufacturers.

  6. I’ve always wanted Hawaiann to get away from being a pure leisure carrier, to being in the same vein as Icelandair/Finnair of exploiting its natural hub location for expanded long distance service. I think this is an exciting development, and hopefully they will continue to expand outward to include more service heading west. I know myself I am tired of having to hit three places often times to be able to reach SE Asia/Pacific Rim.

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