Hawaiian Tests Its NEOs With New Cook Islands Flight


It has been a long time since Hawaiian has announced a new route, but I’m happy to say that day has finally come again. Hawaiian will begin flying from Honolulu to Raratonga in the Cook Islands starting in May. This may not be a huge move for the airline, but it’s an interesting one nonetheless that showcases the value of the A321neo.

At one point in its history, Hawaiian used to have a relatively robust South Pacific network. That last existed in the early 1990s when, according to Cirium T100 data, the airline flew…

  • Honolulu – Apia (Samoa) 1x weekly
  • Honolulu – Nuku’alofa (Tonga) 1x weekly
  • Honolulu – Pago Pago (American Samoa) 3-4x weekly
  • Honolulu – Papeete (Tahiti, French Polynesia) 2x weekly
  • Honolulu – Raratonga (Cook Islands) 1x biweekly
  • Los Angeles – Pago Pago 1x weekly
  • Pago Pago – Apia 1x weekly
  • Pago Pago – Nuku’alofa 2x weekly
  • Pago Pago – Raratonga 1x biweekly

That is an impressive presence, but to put it in context, here’s the map.

By March of 1993, all of those routes had disappeared except for Honolulu – Pago Pago and Papeete. What happened? This beautiful bird stopped flying…

Dean Faulkner, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hawaiian used its fleet of DC-8-62s to ply the Pacific. The airplane was retired in April 1993 according to T100 data. Those last rotations were between Honolulu and both Pago Pago and Papeete, the two remaining Pacific routes that would transition to other fleets. Everything else just disappeared since only a much larger widebody was available to fly the routes. There just wasn’t enough demand.

With Pago Pago losing all that service to other islands, it was dropped down to 2-3x weekly from Honolulu, first on the L-1011 until July 1994 when the DC-10 took over. In Feb 2003 it moved to the 767-300ER and finally to the A330-200 in Feb 2018. With the service being government-supported, that wasn’t going to go away.

Papeete is a different story since it is commercially supported, I believe. The L-1011 had flown during peak times even when the DC-8s were still around. They took over for good in May 1993, operating 1x weekly. As with Pago Pago, the DC-10 took over in 1994 and the 767 in 2003. But the A330 moved into Papeete much earlier, in Nov 2013. During pre-pandemic times, frequency doubled up to 2x weekly.

After the pandemic, Pago Pago stabilized at 2x weekly with Papeete at 1x weekly, both on the A330.

So, what is bringing on the move to return to Raratonga? There just happens to finally be a smaller narrowbody back in the fleet that can handle the distance.

When Hawaiian bought the A321neo, it wanted to fly to smaller mainland cities from Honolulu that couldn’t support service on bigger widebodies. It also wanted to use the neo on thinner routes that couldn’t support a widebody year-round and to strengthen flying to neighbor islands from the mainland. It was noted as an opportunity but not a priority that Hawaiian could use these to expand its South Pacific network as well.

Raratonga sites 2,926 miles south of Honolulu, just about the same distance as Phoenix. That is well within the A321neo’s range.

Hawaiian will fly the route only once a week on a seemingly-odd schedule. The airplane will leave Honolulu Saturday afternoon at 4pm and arrive Raratonga the same day at 10:25pm. It will then sit for over 24 hours, leaving Raratonga Sunday night at 11:35pm, getting back to Honolulu at 5:50am on Monday morning.

Why sit for 24 hours? It can’t just be crew rest. Pilots can’t fly all the way to Raratonga and then turn back to Honolulu on the same duty day. It’s too far. I would think they could fly back in the morning after an overnight rest, but they aren’t doing that. So I reached out to Hawaiian to ask and it confirmed some of my suspicions.

It was a combination of factors, including a longer stage length and block time (compared with PPT and PPG), crew rest needs associated with the narrowbody, and our desire to ensure a variety of two-way connections.

I figured the crew rest issues had something to do with it. Hawaiian can turn the A330 around on the Papeete trip, but that is an A330 which has flat beds. I’m guessing they can deadhead pilots down in a flat bed and then they can fly it back. The neos, however, don’t have flat beds. Maybe some pilots in the group can confirm if that’s a deal-breaker.

But let’s also not underestimate the last bit there about ensuring two way connections. Going south is easy, most destinations get flights in by mid-day and that will turn just fine into a southbound trip. Going north, however, if it was a morning departure after the shortest possible rest period, then the flight would get in and miss that afternoon bank where the most flights back to the mainland operate. Someone must have decided it was worth it to delay the flight home by about half a day so that it could arrive in the morning and connect back to the mainland same day.

Who that someone is… I wonder. I would be surprised if the Cook Islands wasn’t putting money into this effort. After all, it spends a fair bit keeping Air New Zealand flying from Los Angeles to Raratonga once weekly. Or at least, it did. Air New Zealand had flown that route since 2007. It’s the only Pacific Island flight that remains on the airline to the US, and Air NZ used to have an enormous network there. But, that flight has not flown since the dawn of the pandemic, and it’s hard to know if it will ever return.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Hawaiian is now going to replace Air NZ as the preferred way to get to the US. If the Cooks are funding this, then that means it’s a no-lose situation. Even better, it can be a proving ground for other possible deployments of the neo in the South Pacific. If this works on its own merits, maybe more will come.

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29 comments on “Hawaiian Tests Its NEOs With New Cook Islands Flight

  1. CF:
    This might be a stupid, somewhat off-topic question. And for that, I apologize.

    Why doesn’t Hawaiian fly to Canada? I can’t remember if they ever did. And it appears they don’t even have a Canadian codeshare partner. Since Air Canada and WestJet both fly to multiple Hawaiian airports, there must be a demand. I’m just curious why Hawaiian doesn’t seem interested.

    1. Airline route planning isn’t always about what would work, but what is the next best use for the airplane. Sometimes a route that seems to make sense in isolation doesn’t work with the existing network or fleet.

      Air Canada and Westjet only fly year- round to Honolulu from Vancouver. Calgary, Toronto, and Edmonton are seasonal, indicating limited demand. AC and WS also have their whole networks behind Vancouver to feed their flights, something that Hawaiian would not have. So Hawaiian would be the #3 carrier in the Vancouver market relying only on local traffic. I imagine there are just too many better places to use their limited aircraft assets.

      Now if Hawaiian develops its Pacific network further, that may provide some unique beyond HNL traffic to support a destination like Vancouver in the future.

    2. Paul – It is a good question. I think the Canadian market is just so saturated with excess capacity from the Canadian carriers that Hawaiian hasn’t felt the need to jump in. But that hasn’t always been the case in that market, and Hawaiian hasn’t flown it once, at least in the last 30+ years. I do wonder if Hawaiian just missed its best chance to do that.

      More surprising for me is that Hawaiian hasn’t served Anchorage for more than 15 years. Granted, that became Alaska’s market, but it is a highly seasonal but popular route. That could be a good neo route now in the winter.

  2. I love this so much and REALLY hope they add back more South Pacific flights. Maybe even Niue!!!!!

  3. Thanks, Cranky. I love reading about more unusual/exotic routes like this.

    Is United’s Island Hopper route still going strong? I assume it is, but I don’t really follow Hawaiian, as I’m in the Northeast.

    1. Kilroy – Yes it’s still flying. These days it goes Honolulu – Majuro – Kwajalein – Kosrae – Pohnpei – Chuuk – Guam and back.

      1. What else remains of the old Continental Micronesia hub at Guam? I believe it’s still listed as a hub by United but haven’t looked closely.

          1. Thanks! Do they ever fly (or did they ever fly) GUM to the mainland, figuring SFO or maybe LAX would be the logicals?

  4. It doesn’t seem uncommon to see pilots and FAs commute in non-flatbed cabins. Is there a difference (contract?) between voluntary commutes to their base and deadheading them to fly the return flight?

    1. Yes, a big one. Voluntary commutes are up to the pilots and flight attendants on their own time and on their own dime. They’re responsible for getting themselves there and (usually, there were some pandemic exceptions) they have to use their nonrev stand-by privileges to do so. How they get there (fly, drive, train, fly on another airline) is entirely up to them. Commuting is not considered part of “work time” (at least, most of the time). Deadheading is part of the work day because it’s company-mandated travel, so there are contractual agreements in place that regulate what class of service they fly in on the plane. Usually for pilots that’s in first class.

      There are also FAA rules that govern what counts as pilot rest, or not, and having a flat bed (either as part of a crew rest bunk, i.e. in duly-equipped widebodies, or as a marked-off lie-flat seat in the premium cabin) is part of the equation. If the pilots are deadheading a long way to operate a return, it’s likely that they will need FAA-mandated rest and thus a flat bed, before they can operate the return flight.

      1. “There are also FAA rules that govern what counts as pilot rest, or not, and having a flat bed (either as part of a crew rest bunk, i.e. in duly-equipped widebodies, or as a marked-off lie-flat seat in the premium cabin) is part of the equation. If the pilots are deadheading a long way to operate a return, it’s likely that they will need FAA-mandated rest and thus a flat bed, before they can operate the return flight.”

        You sure? UA deadheads pilots on the island hopper and to the Caribbean in 737 F seats which are not flat bed.

        1. Caribbean flights- yes you are correct, the crews swap with deadheading due to FAR 117 flight time limits. However, the Island Hopper is different. The crew is augmented, not deadheading.

          Augmentation is completely different from deadheading. Deadheading pilots are traveling in regular passenger seats and will not operate the aircraft at all during the flight. Augmented pilots will rotate in and out of the flight deck during the flight (or flights as is the case for the Island Hopper), providing the entire crew rest opportunity onboard the aircraft in a Class 1, 2, or 3 rest facility. The seats the pilots sit in for the Island Hopper meet the FAR 117 requirements to make them a Class 3 rest facility- a seat in the aircraft or cabin that reclines at least 40 degrees and provides leg and foot support. These are seats 1A and 1B on the GUM based 737s. Seats 2A and 2B are blocked due to the extended reclining capabilities of 1A and 1B.

          1. Thanks for such a fascinating explanation.

            I’d love to see more information on the FAA & union rules/requirements around crew rests, deadheading, rest facilities, etc etc (yes, seriously; I’m that kind of avgeek who really likes to understand how things work behind the scenes), just preferably in “English” and not in “bureaucratese rules”… If anyone could please point me in the right direction, I’d be much obliged.

  5. Most likely the Cook Islands Gov’t is putting money into this. Prior to COVID, they had a subsidy that they paid to Air New Zealand for them to fly through Rarotonga on its LAX-Auckland flights. With that flight now off the table, the Cook Island government is promoting the link to the islands now, from the US mainland, through Hawaii and this new service. So with the government saying as late as November that they plan to continue the subsidy, you can be sure that the airline is getting something for this. It probably helps with the expense of housing a crew on Rarotonga for 12 hours for rest and other incidental costs that make it “work”.

    Here is where you can find the news on the subsidy: https://www.cookislandsnews.com/internal/national/economy/travel/business/sydney-flights-on-the-horizon/

    1. Re: Icelandair a long airplane ground time here in DEN, it must be for two way connections, as discussed above. ?

      The Icelandair 757 KEF to DEN arrives at 18:05, daily.

      The return DEN to KEF does not depart until 15:40, the next day, nearly a 24 hour ground time.

      I have always wondered why it sat so long.

      It must be the two way connection issue, if the inbound aircraft did a quick turn in DEN, to head back to KEF, it would miss all the eastbound connections in KEF, at least on Icelandair.

      I count 10 eastbound Icelandair departures this morning, Tuesday, which departed between 07:25 and 07:50.

      I count 15 eastbound Icelandair departures yesterday, Monday, which departed between 07:20 and 08:00.


  6. Such a cool route by HA! I hope their old pacific network gets a boost from the NEO. Fingers crossed.

  7. From/to U.S. mainland to/from Rarotonga can be done via PPT. There’s now a weekly flight between PPT and RAR by Air Rarotonga. It’s shorter distance from LAX or SFO and probably other mainland cities to PPT then to RAR compared to HNL then to RAR.

    1. More options are good, though. And Hawaiian offers service to a lot more mainland cities from HNL than are available from PPT, so going via HNL means a one stop option for a lot more people versus having to connect in both LAX/SFO and PPT.

  8. I had the pleasure of visiting the Cook Islands back in 96. You could connect same day from Seattle to Rarotonga (L1011 SEA-HNL, DC-8 HNL-PPT-RAR). Took a day trip up to Aitutaki on AirRarotonga (SAAB I think). Aitutaki is the most beautiful off-the-beaten-path destination ever, look it up. Then up to Apia, Samoa on a Polynesian 727, nice place, but I prefer the Cooks. Finally back to HNL via Pago Pago, then on to SEA the next day. The Papaya is amazing and it grows like weeds, culture quite laid back as one would imagine for the South Pacific.
    I do hope HA is successful with the right-sized aircraft back in the fleet.

  9. Cranky- I train people in pilot scheduling for an airline and can shed some light on how FAR 117 is what prevents this route being operated as a turn.

    You are right in that the pilots cannot turn around and operate the flight back in the same duty day as a 2 man (unaugmented) crew. The FAR flight time limit is 9 hours in one duty period for an unaugmented crew, 13 hours for a single augmented crew (3 pilots), and 17 hours for a double augmented crew (4 pilots). Notwithstanding the flight duty period limit, it is the flight time limit that’s the issue. The 6.5 hours each way would not be legal for a 2 man crew to do round trip in a single duty period and probably be too tight for a 3 man crew. If it were to be operated as a turn, it would probably have to be double augmented.

    However, in order for a flight to be augmented, there must be a rest facility on board the aircraft. Rest facilities are classified as Class 1, 2, or 3. At minimum, a Class 3 rest facility requires a seat in the cabin or flight deck to recline at least 40 degrees and provide leg and foot support. Hawaiian’s First Class recliners on their A321N’s do not have that.

    Augmentation is completely different from deadheading. Deadheading pilots are traveling in regular passenger seats and will not operate the aircraft at all during the flight. Augmented pilots will rotate in and out of the flight deck during the flight, providing the entire crew rest opportunity onboard the aircraft in a Class 1, 2, or 3 rest facility.

    1. Call – Thanks, and this brings up another question. If you are deadheading, do you need full rest after that flight as if you’d operated it? What I mean is, could you have 2 pilots fly down to RAR with two deadheading. Then just swap for the return? Or does it have to be treated as an entire single trip that is augmented?

      1. It’s been while since I escaped Crew Scheduling, but you could staff a flight like you described (deadhead leg 1 and swap to operate leg 2), but I think for a flight like this you’d run into flight duty period issues. A crew would be limited to a 12 hour duty day based on how the flight is scheduled.

        Much of Sun Country’s Caribbean/Mexico flying (at least previously) out of MSP is staffed that way.

        1. Brad is correct. You would solve the flight time issue but you could run into FDP issues. If the crew deadheading to RAR is supposed to turn around and operate without a rest period, they would be bound by the same FDP as the crew operating to RAR since.

  10. Surprised there’s been no mention of Aloha Airlines’ service to RAR. The flight was routed HNL-PPG-RAR on a 737-700. I’m not sure, but I think it was 2 wk. It was a red eye both directions.

    AQ was exploring using PPG as a South Pacific hub to connect Tonga, (Western) Samoa, Fiji, RAR, PPT and other Islands for commerce and was seeking business & Government support.

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