Three years ago, I took eight flights on Southwest within California without ever touching the same airport twice. Knowing I was spending a month in Hawai’i this summer, I thought I’d try to do the same thing with Hawaiian Airlines. Until fairly recently, this was hard since nearly all the airline’s routes went through Honolulu. But in recent years, Hawaiian has bulked up routes between the neighbor islands.
I talked to Alex Da Silva who runs external communications for Hawaiian to see if we could put something together. Sure enough, we found a way to touch every airport Hawaiian serves with the 717. The plan was to go from Honolulu to Hilo on to Kahului (Maui), over to Lihu’e (Kaua’i), back to Kona, and then end in Honolulu.
[Disclosure: Hawaiian provided these flights at no cost]
While my California adventure was all about maximizing time in the air, this was different. I made sure to have at least an hour of downtime at each airport, so that I’d be able to learn more about each stop along the way. What I found was that each airport was significantly different, not just in layout but also in passenger mix, flight variety, and the challenges that each one faces. One overarching issue that’s worth highlighting up front is the awful state-run airport system in Hawai’i which I’ve chronicled previously.
I spent the entire time talking to employees. The only breaks were the short bursts of time we spent actually in the air. You can see the video of those takeoffs and landings here. Today I write up the first half of the trip. The second half will follow Monday.
The day started just before 3am when I had to wake up to get ready to meet Alex for our planned 3:30am departure. The ride from the North Shore of O’ahu to the airport takes about 50 minutes with no traffic. And at that time of day, there is NO traffic. It’s also incredibly dark, so you can see stars stretching for miles on all sides.
Why were we up so insanely early? I decided it would be particularly interesting to watch the Hawaiian operation wake up. There are plenty of business travelers and commuters who do day trips between islands, and the 5am start is important to cementing Hawaiian’s frequency advantage, especially now that Southwest has decided to enter the market.
While there are a bunch of flights operating that early, there’s no more “local” market than Honolulu to Hilo, the least touristy city to get jets in Hawai’i, so that’s where the day would begin.
Hawaiian has no 717s that stay overnight on the other islands, so the view from the parking garage overlooking all 20 of the airplanes in one place was impressive.
I was surprised to see such a long line at security, even for Precheck. The mix of travelers was what I had expected. I saw a painter wearing his union shirt. There were others with very little luggage who were clearly just trying to get a full day in. There were also some families, who I suppose could have needed to go early but more likely were just taking advantage of a cheaper fare. After all, these morning flights tend to run lighter loads than during prime time. Still, we had 90 people on ours.
After picking up some tea at the shockingly empty Starbucks, we went to our gate and waited for group 3 to board. That’s the standard group for most (if not all) coach travelers. Boarding on a flight like this happens very fast since everyone knows the drill.
August 7, 2019
Hawaiian 102 Lv Honolulu 5a Arr Hilo 550a
Honolulu (HNL): Gate A18, Runway 8L, Depart 6m Early
Hilo (ITO): Gate 6, Runway 8, Arrive 3m Early
N486HA, Boeing 717-22A, 2001 Pualani colors, 70% Full
Seat 12A, Coach
Flight Time 36m
With all travelers onboard, we were able to push back early. I learned later on that before 9am when arrivals are few and far between, all flights can depart on runway 8L which is much closer to the terminal than the normal departure runway, the distant 8R, aka the “reef runway.” Because of that, we were off quickly into the dark sky.
If I had one complaint throughout the day, it’s that Hawaiian does a terrible job with the 717 windows. All of them had water spots obscuring the view and some had really bad scratches. This is a market where the view matters a lot. I mean, just take a look at the lights on the eastern end of O’ahu as the sun began to rise.
The flight attendants came through with the first of many POG juices I’d have that day. I stared outside as the sky rapidly turned orange and red.
By the time we got to Hilo just over half an hour later, there were blue skies. This is somewhat rare in Hilo, a city on the windward side of the island that gets well over 100 inches of rain per year.
The preferred arrival when the weather is good is to point the plane toward towering Maunakea from over the bay. Then, a series of left turns lines the airplane up to land toward the east. During poor weather, they have to approach from the east and that requires a longer flight time.
The airport was empty as we took our place at gate 6, right in the center with 3 gates on either side. (Inexplicably, the gates at Hilo and Lihu’e both start with 3, and nobody I asked seemed to know why.)
Alex and I stuck around to chat briefly with our pilots from the first flight. Our Captain, Kainalu and our First Officer, Makana were really friendly and happily spoke about their jobs. They both live on O’ahu, and they strongly prefer flying in the mornings. They also like flying more, lighter days to get their monthly hours. This day, for example, they’d go back to Honolulu and then do one more roundtrip before being done before lunch. Others prefer to do up to twice as many flights in a day and fly more often, but these two liked being home in the afternoons.
We didn’t have a ton of time to talk to them since they had less than 30 minutes on the ground before turning back. Hawaiian does not put much padding in its schedule yet they keep those planes on time. It’s a remarkable feat, even though it’s one that’s clearly helped greatly by the generally-benign weather.
With the pilots back on-board, Mike from the Hilo station came and took us down to the ramp. The weather was so clear that it turned into a photo shoot. It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing this massive mountain looming over you as the sun rises opposite.
Mike took us over to the cargo facility, a new building that handles cargo for all airlines. In Hilo, the big business for Hawaiian is papayas. Twice a week, a company delivers massive shipments of papaya to Hawaiian, and they fly them out from there, mostly to Canada and the West Coast via Honolulu. The old cargo facility was actually in the original terminal building for the airport. That building sits right next to the old tower… for now. The wrecking ball is on its way soon.
Hilo is the only 717 airport from which Hawaiian has no mainland flights. In fact, the only mainland flight on any airline is United’s sole daily run to Los Angeles. It’s a largely local airport with few tourists compared to the others. The airport was probably the best laid out and easiest to navigate of all the ones we saw that day. It’s also the only one that doesn’t have capacity issues. Half the gates sit open all day, something that will only change marginally when Southwest arrives.
We were ready to head back to the terminal, but we paused to watch the next Hawaiian arrival. What a sight that was. Then we went back to the terminal so I could take a look at the airline’s offices. There’s a newly-renovated breakroom, something that was happening at every Hawaiian station after years of neglect.
I met with Bobby, a ramp manager (at left, above) with an incredible library of knowledge in his head about load planning in the unique Hawaiian environment. I watched as he and Alex talked about the new load planning system that the airline had started using. Bobby explained with ease several areas that he thought could be improved. His decades of experience made it easy for him to think about things differently than others.
After seeing the ticket counter which sits outside under a shaded roof, we were given a hot tip. The restaurant — which is labeled as “restaurant” — outside security has great fried rice. Get it with gravy, and it’s amazing.
I did. And it was.
It was then time to get back behind security. The TSA seems to be a pain point for different reasons at nearly every airport in Hawai’i. In Hilo, there was a Precheck line but only one ID checker for the whole airport. He took a few people from the regular line before he’d motion for anyone from the Precheck line. Then at one point, he just left and we all stood there staring at each other. He decided to come back a couple minutes later and the process resumed.
Beyond security, Hilo has a ground level waiting area that looks like it belongs on your patio. Going upstairs, we again ended up at gate 6, the only gate in the airport with air conditioning. The others are all outdoor gates.
Alex had been upgraded to First Class thanks to normal Hawaiian pass travel rules, so he boarded first. I got in line to get on the airplane. When I went to swipe by boarding pass, the seat changed to 1F. Sweet. As we found out from the gate agent later, there were no standbys left and that seat was open, so they thought it would be nice to move me up. That’s exactly the kind of hospitality I felt in Hilo more than anywhere else that day.
August 7, 2019
Hawaiian 149 Lv Hilo 852a Arr Kahului 932a
Hilo (ITO): Gate 6, Runway 8, Depart 1m Early
Kahului (OGG): Gate 13, Runway 2, Arrive 4m Early
N476HA, Boeing 717-22A, Maile Lei colors, 96% Full
Seat 1F, First Class
Flight Time 24m
We took off toward the east for our shortest flight of the day. This was also the one flight on which I didn’t drink POG juice.
After all, I was up in the fancy seats, so I opted for this pre-mixed gin/coconut/citrus concoction that was refreshing despite the early hour. (Alex stayed non-alcoholic.)
I liked that Hawaiian had a copy of the local newspaper at every seat, but I didn’t read it. I was too busy watching Haleakala out the window.
We turned north after the mountain and followed the Makena/Wailea/Kihei coast before flying over barren former sugar cane fields until we landed.
The goal on Maui was to see some of the new work that airport has done. It’s not often the state actually completes a project, it seems, but on Maui, they’ve been busy… and not always in a good way.
If you’ve been to Kahului, you know that you used to have to walk over to a paved lot to take a branded rental car shuttle to the individual locations. Now, there’s a fancy new car rental center that is across the main road from the terminal and a bit further south. That’s good. But what did they do? They built a silly train that goes from the rental car center to departures and then on to arrivals. It must have been absurdly expensive, but it’s also completely unnecessary.
The walk from one end to the other is 8 minutes. A much cheaper solution would be to just have a few shuttles for those who don’t want to walk. It’s just such a short ride.
I learned later when talking to Pat Rosa, the man who sits over ops for all the neighbor island airports, that most people are walking anyway, because there isn’t even enough train capacity. People end up waiting too long. The train has also created another problem. When it opens up at departures, it dumps off a huge number of people who all pour into the ticketing lobby at the same time, gumming up the works.
That makes the timing of Hawaiian’s latest Maui project fortuitous. The airline just finished a remodel of the ticketing lobby that puts more than 30 kiosks into an arrow shape, guiding passengers to check in and pass through to the bag check. These are the airline’s new kiosks that are much faster and fail less, so the whole process has improved significantly. Other airports will follow.
If only that efficiency could spill over to the TSA process. Kahului more than any Hawaiian airport seems to have a security line problem. I was told by Vicki, an airport ops manager for Hawaiian, that it’s not uncommon to see the lines stretching back toward the Hawaiian counter. That makes for a 45 minute to 1 hour wait. If it makes it all the way back to United — something that apparently isn’t unheard of — then you’re looking at 2 hours. The airport is looking at building a new checkpoint at the southern end of the ticketing area to help alleviate the pain, but this is Hawai’i, so it won’t happen anytime soon.
This traffic jam is a result of Maui being blessed with a substantial amount of new service. Hawaiian has upped its game with the A321neos and now has more than 8 mainland flights a day. Southwest is in the market, and other airlines have stepped it up as well. There is just a lot of traffic, and the airport isn’t doing a great job of keeping up with it.
The baggage system is old and buggy, so it breaks down a lot. The holdrooms are also too small. At least the latter appears in line for a makeover. The outdoor hallways that take people to each holdroom will be enclosed at some point and become part of the holdrooms.
We didn’t have a ton of time on Maui, and we were worried about the TSA lines, so we made our way back to security to find the line that was there earlier had completely vanished. Go figure. We made our way in and then sat in the crowded holdroom waiting for our flight. When boarding time came, things got ugly.
Alex and I got in line, and on his app, his seat assignment all of sudden just disappeared. We both got to the front and both of us got a red light saying we had incorrect seats. The agents couldn’t figure it out and said he wasn’t checked in, despite him having the app boarding pass in his hands. They told us to go talk to Dawn at the podium on the other side of the holdroom, so we went over there as the boarding line dwindled.
Dawn was working with someone else at the time, and there was one more person in line. The agents at the gate announced that the door would be closed in two minutes, and we started getting anxious. Finally Dawn finished with the first person, and we stepped in to tell her our problem since the other customer was clearly asking about the Honolulu flight on the other side of the counter. She looked at us, paused, and said “this gentlemen was here first.” It was positively maddening. Knowing the door was closing, we went back to the gate. The agents somehow got a boarding pass to print even though it still wouldn’t scan. They told us to take our stubs and they’d figure it out later. We did, and I was the last one on the airplane.
I’ll have the second half of my day posted Monday.