Hawaiian Marches to the Beat of Its Own Drum With New A321 Cabin


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.

  1. They’ll allow Hawaiian to open up flights from smaller West Coast cities to big Hawaiian cities like Honolulu.
  2. They’ll allow Hawaiian to open up flights from big West Coast cities to smaller Hawaiian cities like Lihu’e or Kona.
  3. 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]

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27 comments on “Hawaiian Marches to the Beat of Its Own Drum With New A321 Cabin

  1. “Hawaiian has put together an eye-pleasing interior design”
    The photos only show dark gray seats, dark gray carpet, white everything else. Guess this explains the lack of electric outlets in regular coach and no wifi — it’s all designed to put you to sleep. Your view of the backs of your eyelids will be pleasing. BRING BOOKS!

    1. Agreed. This is about as generic of an interior as you can get, though it does look somewhat upscale and not cheap with the black.

      There was no need for Hawaiian to get crazy, but it could have at least added a few spots of bright island style colors for accents or some floral motifs.

    2. Maybe the photos don’t show it very well, but Hawaiian also sent me one of those virtual reality viewers where you pull up a website on your phone and use the cardboard goggles. There are a lot of teal accents throughout the fabrics, and I think in person that will come across more.

  2. Perhaps I’m missing something…but how is it possible to provide “…wireless streaming video onboard that people can watch on their own devices” when “…there is no internet onboard”?

    Isn’t internet a prerequisite for streaming video content on your own device?

    1. It is an intranet, not internet. All internal to the aircraft, nothing connected to the outside network known as the internet.

    2. As JB says – there is a wifi connection from your device to a network on the airplane. On the network, there is a server which holds content which you access via a web browser. But there is no access to the wider internet, just what is stored on the airplane.

  3. In addition to opening up thinner West Coast routes, it’d be interesting to see if the A321 becomes their go-to plane for medium-haul Pacific markets like PPT.

  4. I thought they would have stolen the JetBlue a321 concept. Interesting the overhead bins don’t look like the new ones Delta is using that store more bags – do they just assume more people are checking going to/from the islands?

    I also cant believe no real in-seat power. If BYOD is the IFE, then you really should provide power to people, especially knowing the routes are all over 4 hours…

    1. Apparently they want you to use smaller devices that can run on a USB cable, which makes sense — sort of — in coach. Take a look at those device holders on the seatbacks — probably totally useless if the person in front decides to recline.

  5. When I fly to Hawaii, I want Mai Tais, not work emails. In other words, I am okay with no internet (I have never paid for it on 1.5 million miles in the air).

    I haven’t taken a laptop to Hawaii in the last four or so years; iPad is generally sufficient. Plus, I need the tray table for the Mai Tais, so no room for laptop. Thus no need for power beyond USB.

    Plus I’d book the Comfort section anyway.

    1. Boy, I sure do miss the Pineapple Orange Guava juice with the Malibu rum that ATA had. And the drinks were cheap!

  6. Aren’t those built-in device holders only good if the seat in front of you doesn’t recline?

    Seems to me once the person in front of you reclines their seat, you either can’t view your device or it falls off and lands in your lap.

    1. Yeah… so they forgot to put in the press release that the seats don’t recline ;)


      I haven’t been in a seat with tablet holder, but I suspect the designers considered that somehow? After all, they did with seat-back displays that can be adjusted when the seat angle changes.

    2. David – It’s a good question, but if they become useless when the seat reclines, then it wouldn’t have been worth installing. Hopefully they’ve figured out a way to handle this during recline.

  7. Anyone else remember this – long ago in their advertising Hawaiian used to tout that they flew ONLY WIDEBODIES from the mainland to the islands. Of course, I’d be happy to fly on one of these elegant A321s, and wouldn’t mind being being off-internet for the duration… there are these wonderful things called books, you know…

    1. And Alaska probably still has “proudly all Boeing” on their planes (even though they have had Q400s for a long time and now also E175s, both through their fully owned subsidiary Horizon that flies with the AS brand on its tail).

      It’s called marketing. Don’t pay attention to it.

  8. Not having a TV in front of you on a leisure flight is really cheap. You’re SOL if you’re in regular coach and your iPad runs out of power because those USB power ports don’t really charge an iPad.

    1. They don’t have to charge it, just keep it from discharging :)

      Here’s what I do. I spent $30 for a small 9000 mAh battery pack a few years ago. It can charge up to two devices (phone, iPad) concurrently if needed. I no longer worry about USB plugs working or not working or finding a seat with power in the gate area or …

      1. It always annoys me when I plug my iPad into a USB port and I get the message that charging is not supported on this device and you are then SOL. But you’re right, I really should bet a battery pack. It’s also about the only use I really have for an iPad. I still prefer to use a computer because I like a full sized keyboard.

        I think AVOD is easier as a customer because it doesn’t rely on me having a device that is properly charged and being used on leisure routes, I’m not sure that every passenger has a device to watch something, such as younger children.

        1. A lot of children these days seem to have iPads or other similar devices. Obviously not all of them, but it appears to be a popular “baby sitter” / pacifier replacement. Works for me; I’d rather have a kid watch a movie in a restaurant than have them crawl under the tables (*cough* my nephews).

          As someone else mentioned, there is also always “book” technology. Not sure what’s wrong these days with taking kids to the library and have them pick out a book or two for a trip.

        2. I find that a lot of those USB ports get so used that they break frequently. I was in AUS on Tuesday, and they have these nice seats with a power plug and usb port in the arms, problem is, I had to move 3 times to find a USB that still worked, I gave up and plugged into the outlet and it barely worked.

      2. I have a 26800 mAh battery with three of the latest “smart” 3.0 Amp USB outs (and 2 2.4 Amp micro USB inputs – it’s a BIG battery!) Two of these commonly charge all family devices for a long weekend without ever plugging into an AC outlet. I bring one AC charger with two outlets/wires to plug in one of the batteries if I get “range anxiety” but rarely need it. I agree, I don’t care that much about seat back power.

        However, as a T-mobile customer who has been spoiled by FREE wi-fi Internet on Alaska for a long time, not having the Internet feels like a huge blow. I really enjoy hanging out with my friends and playing online games while traveling. I don’t like TV & movies much so stored-onboard IFE doesn’t excite me at all.

  9. I agree with you CF regarding having power on BYOD flights but I don’t think HA is the only airline that is putting its hopes on this combination of power and entertainment devices.

    There are clearly a group of airlines that believe that airline provided AVOD PLUS their own streaming entertainment is the right formula for longhaul domestic flights while others think BYOD is acceptable. Some carriers will have AC power for laptops regardless of the entertainment system. Many personal electronics including laptops can operate for 5+ hours; since you can’t use a laptop from gate to gate as you can with a handheld device, the internal power of the devices might be enough. Of course, if you forgot to fully charge your device, if you don’t have the latest technology, if you like brighter screen settings, or if you are connecting from one flight to another where you can’t recharge, your batteries aren’t going to make it.

    What is clear is that there will be two groups of airlines WRT onboard entertainment options. It should be possible soon to determine if the investment in airline provided seatback AVOD was worth it.

    1. I personally would rather fly on an airline with the BYOD model than on, say, UA’s DirectTV equipped planes where people can’t figure out how to turn off the screen, so the cabin is full of flickering screens that no one watches. Especially annoying on evening/night flights.

  10. SWA is not offering power at all, much less USB or device holders on their new seats. At least Hawaiian is trying.

  11. It’s not like streaming will work in the first place everytime I try it on UA,AA,DL it has never worked so what’s to make me think it will work on HA.

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