There’s something exciting about the introduction of a new type of airplane into an airline’s fleet. I’m not talking about an airline having an A320 and rolling out an A320neo. I’m talking about something grander, when an airline brings on a new aircraft type to fulfill a mission it hasn’t been able to serve before. That’s what Hawaiian has done with the introduction of the A321neo at the end of this year. Last week, it announced cabin details, and it’s clear that Hawaiian has, for better or worse, ignored a few trends in the industry and done something it thinks will work best for its market. Other than a couple of glaring omissions, I tend to agree.
Hawaiian’s fleet today has 2 different types of airplanes. There are the 767 and A330 aircraft which are meant for longer-haul flights while the ATR and 717 are meant for short interisland hops. Interisland is all about packing people in for mostly sub-30 minute flights, and it’s not something I’m going to touch on today. Instead, let’s talk about the long haul.
The 767 is really just a stop-gap. Hawaiian has been slowly retiring those, but it continues to fly them on some routes for now. It’s the A330 that’s the flagship. But while Hawaiian used to be an airline that focused on West Coast-Hawai’i, it’s now a much more well-rounded airline. It flies to places all around the Pacific Rim and it touches the East Coast of the US at New York/JFK. That means Hawaiian uses the same airplane to fly anything from 5 to 10+ hour flights, and that’s not entirely ideal.
Before, Hawaiian had an adequate product in coach with in-seat video and decent legroom. But its premium cabin was more of a domestic-style product. As Hawaiian ventured into longer segments, it had to find something that would be better-suited to those long-hauls. It introduced a flat bed up front that wasn’t quite in the same league as the flat beds others were rolling out. But as a leisure airline where more often than not there were couples traveling together, Hawaiian needed something that fit its customer profile better. At the same time, it dramatically expanded Extra Comfort seating with more legroom since that would be in higher demand on longer flights.
The A321neo was supposed to be a gamechanger for the airline. Unlike other airlines with a diverse domestic network, the A321neo would be firmly flying the 5 to 6 hour flights from Hawai’i to the West Coast. These airplanes are expected to be used for three purposes.
- They’ll allow Hawaiian to open up flights from smaller West Coast cities to big Hawaiian cities like Honolulu.
- They’ll allow Hawaiian to open up flights from big West Coast cities to smaller Hawaiian cities like Lihu’e or Kona.
- They’ll allow Hawaiian to add frequency on big trunk routes like, potentially, LA to Honolulu.
This is a big deal for Hawaiian, but while the missions are somewhat different on these, they’ll all cater to the same type of customer on the same flight length. Hawaiian had to figure out how to translate this into a good mid-haul cabin environment.
You can read the press release, and you’ll get all kinds of silly PR speak, as usual. In short, Hawaiian continued to try to use designs that look like natural Hawaiian materials. That’s entirely expected and it’s what Hawaiian has done on the rest of the fleet.
But there are some things that stand out as being very different from the A330 experience.
First, up front, there won’t be flat beds. The 16 premium cabin seats look to be fairly standard domestic-style recliners. Some have noted that this is a step backwards. But the reality is that the step “forward” to a flat bed wasn’t one Hawaiian wanted to take for most of its West Coast routes anyway. Travelers on those routes just benefited from the need to have beds on longer routes.
Since the A321 will be primarily used for new routes or additional frequencies on existing routes, it’s not like people are likely to be getting a worse experience than before. For the most part, they wouldn’t have had access to these flights on Hawaiian before at all. (Though I suppose I should reserve true judgment until the first routes are announced later this year.)
Interestingly, there will still be a very sizable Extra Comfort cabin in back with 45 seats there and 128 in regular coach. I’m guessing that means that people in coach may get a nice surprise with an upgrade, at least on some routes.
What’s missing? Unlike on the A330s, there will be no in-seat video. Instead, Hawaiian will have wireless streaming video onboard that people can watch on their own devices. Hawaiian today charges to watch most movies on those screens, and that won’t change when it comes to streaming. With any luck there will be more free content to make it easier for people to adapt, but I’m told it’ll be similar to how it works today. The seats will have built-in holders for personal devices, and those look like they’ll be useful for people of a certain height.
So where does Hawaiian fall down? In two places. First, there will only be AC power outlets for travelers up front and in Extra Comfort. Those in regular coach will get only a measly USB power port. That will work for some devices, but it won’t help with laptops. I don’t care what research says, when an airline’s entertainment system relies on a customer device, there better be a place for each person to recharge it. USB isn’t enough.
Second, there is no internet onboard. In the past, Hawaiian has been able to get around that by saying that it’s a leisure airline and flying over water makes it a much greater challenge to have wifi. Those excuses don’t fly anymore as airlines have begun racing to install fast satellite. You can charge for it, but you need to have it.
Overall, Hawaiian has put together an eye-pleasing interior design that has gone against some of the trends in the industry. For the most part, I think Hawaiian has been smart. But lacking AC power and internet is a gamble that I wouldn’t make in this day and age.
[Images via Hawaiian Airlines]