March 26, 2014

A Haul and a Hop on Hawaiian Airlines

What is the longest domestic flight that you have ever flown? How about the shortest? When you think about a long domestic flight, you probably think about a transcontinental flight between the east and west coasts. Boston to San Francisco and Miami to Seattle both clock in at over 2700 miles. And yet, there are domestic flights to one place that are far longer than that.

And what about your shortest domestic flight? As recently as the 1980s, ultra-short routes on mainline aircraft existed, such as the classic Oakland-San Fransisco flight on a United 727. In recent years however, several factors such as the high cost of jet fuel have caused many of these routes to disappear. The routes that have remained are now flown only on smaller turboprops or regional jets. According to ratings, data, and flight search site Routehappy, none of the five largest US airlines fly anything larger than a Bombardier CRJ-900 on a flight lasting less than 40 minutes. A full 20 percent of these flights are operated with the 30-seat Embraer E120 turboprop, while another 10 percent use the slightly larger Bombardier Dash 8 series 100 and 200. And yet there is one place where ultra short flights are not only commonplace they are frequent, and where the aircraft of choice is a mainline-sized Boeing 717.

We are talking about Hawaii of course. The 50th state sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, roughly 2500 miles from the closest point in California. Air travel has become a near necessity, not only to get to and from the mainland, but to get between islands as well. Nearly all major US and Canadian airlines serve one or more Hawaiian airports from the mainland. In addition, a plethora of airlines from around the Pacific also have scheduled flights to Honolulu (HNL). Within the islands, there are flights onboard passenger jets between major airports while smaller turboprops link the large airports to smaller ones. The single most dominant airline in the state has to be Hawaiian Airlines though. The airline’s long haul fleet is a mix of 767-300ERs and A330-200s, while 717-200s take care of the ‘neighbor island’ flying. We recently had the opportunity to fly on Hawaiian Airlines, and to experience both their long haul and short haul operations.

The Long Haul: Off to Honolulu

The moving map, a short while before landing in Honolulu.

The moving map, a short while before landing in Honolulu.

Hawaiian Airlines flights between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Honolulu International Airport (HNL) are currently among the longest on their route map. Coming in at just under 5,000 miles, the flight to Honolulu took us 10 hours and 7 minutes.  The flight back clocked in at just 8 hours and 51 minutes, which the captain remarked was one of the faster times for the route. Only Hawaiian’s flights to Sydney and Taipei are longer than the JFK flight currently. Both of those flights are just under 5,100 miles in length, putting the JFK route in a close third place.

At JFK, Hawaiian operates out of JetBlue’s Terminal 5, and our shuttle van dropped us right at the curb. Hawaiian’s check in desks were just inside the door, though having checked in online, all we needed to do was drop our bags which took just a few minutes. Though the flight is one of the airline’s longest, it is still domestic which means a first checked bag will run you an extra $25.00. We paid online when we checked in, and the process of dropping off our bags was absolutely seamless. Within just a couple of minutes we were off to the security checkpoint, located a very short walk away.

JetBlue's clean and modern Terminal 5 at JFK, as viewed from near gate 14.

JetBlue’s clean and modern Terminal 5 at JFK, as viewed from near gate 14.

This flight was our first experience with TSA PreCheck, and the experience was somewhat mixed. While the benefits of screening in the PreCheck line were great (belt and jacket on, laptops and liquids in my bag, and just a walk through a metal detector), the implementation at T5 was poor. Once making it past the boarding pass check, travelers with PreCheck were quickly mixed together with the families with small children. This is an awful mix: what should be the fastest travelers to screen are combined together with those who should be the slowest. It created a few slowdowns in the process, but the worst was the bottleneck retrieving our bags from the x-ray machine. Still, we made it through faster than the rest of our party who used the normal lines. Reaching out to the TSA, they explained that due to JetBlue’s very limited use of PreCheck currently, it is hard to justify a dedicated lane at this time. While that makes sense, it is still a fairly poor combination of travelers to lump together. Once through security, we grabbed some breakfast and a warm beverage and headed off to our gate.

Our ride to Honolulu parked at Gate 14.

Our ride to Honolulu parked at Gate 14.

Our flight was aboard one of Hawaiian’s A330s. Since Terminal 5 was designed to accommodate the much smaller A320s that JetBlue operates, very few gates are able to handle a plane as large as ours. Gate 14, located at the very end of the main pier of gates, is largely dedicated to the A330s that the terminal serves both from Hawaiian and Aer Lingus. The A330s are large enough to block use of the adjacent gate 12. That gate’s terminal space has been repurposed with a children’s play area, which was a nice touch. The agent desk was also used to shorten lines at the main desk.

Boarding began about 30 minutes before departure and moved fairly quickly despite being somewhat chaotic. Hawaiian’s boarding groups were a bit large, and combined with passengers crowding the gate area it was a challenge to get to the jetway when our group was called. Once onboard, we quickly found our seat (26A) and got settled. Things got a bit interesting when a family with a small child attempted to commandeer a middle seat for their child seat without paying for it. The cabin crew and gate agent did an excellent job of resolving the situation, and soon we were pushing back for an on-time departure. After a quick taxi, we departed off of runway 4L.


Our beverage of choice and a bag of Pau Hana snack mix.

Once airborne, the flight attendants quickly came through the cabin with a round of drinks and their Pau Hana snack mix. This was followed soon after by the first meal service. Despite it barely being 10 in the morning New York time, each passenger in coach was given a fairly heavy meal consisting of pasta in a mushroom sauce, a small salad, and a macadamia nut shortbread cookie. No choice of entree here, so if you don’t like what is being offered, you will be out of luck, Fortunately, the meal was quite good and filling. Each meal tray also came with a small ‘cuplet’ of water. This is a solution that can be somewhat prone to creating a bit of a mess if you’re not careful tearing off the foil lid. Also available was your choice of soft drink or a glass of red or white wine.

Following the meal, we settled in for the balance of the flight. Hawaiian offers personal inflight entertainment (IFE) screens at each seat, with a variety of paid and free content. Movies were $7.99 each, while a package allowing unlimited viewing of a variety of TV shows was $6.99 for the entire flight. Available for free was a selection of audio stations, combining mainstream, international, and local Hawaiian flavors. two short videos on Hawaii, and a moving map. We opted for the moving map, a few of the audio channels, and s couple of movies that we had pre-downloaded onto an iPad.

The flight across the continental United States was relatively smooth and about five and a half hours in we crossed the coast of California, somewhere near San Francisco. The cabin was mostly dark as passengers closed their windows to keep the bright winter sunlight out. Many passengers seemed to use this time to sleep, though we avoided that to better help ourselves adjust to a timezone five hours behind what we were accustomed to. The flight attendants made several passes giving out water and collecting garbage, however they mostly worked from back to front making it a challenge to see them coming and catch their attention. On more than 1 pass, we missed them.


Our breakfast service, shortly before landing in Honolulu in the early afternoon.

A couple hours outside of Honolulu, the cabin crew came around with the second meal and drink service. This time it was a cold selection of fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, and chocolate covered macadamia nuts. It was quite yummy, but could have stood to be a bit more substantial. Over the course of the flight, we found that we ate the selection of snacks that we had brought along, and still we found it necessary to visit the inflight snack bar for a very expensive bag of chips.

Another aircraft far off our wing as we began our descent into HNL.

Another aircraft far off our wing as we began our descent into HNL.

Before we knew it we were on approach to Honolulu. Flying into Hawaii is a pretty amazing experience. After flying above nothing but clouds and ocean for several hours, there are suddenly snow-capped mountain peaks poking above the clouds. The cabin crew came around before landing to distribute and then retrieve agricultural declaration forms. Our approach was uneventful, and before we knew it we were on the ground. After a very short taxi, we were at the gate. Disembarkation was quick and easy, and we were soon up one of two jetways at our gate. Before we knew, it we were outside waiting to board a shuttle bus. Honolulu airport provides frequent, well managed service onboard their ‘Wiki Wiki’ shuttle service. This made connecting to the interisland terminal a breeze.

The Island Hops: To Maui and Back


Our ride to Maui, one of Hawaiian’s 717-200s

Hawaiian Airlines refers to their short haul operation as “neighbor island” flights. These flights provide service between Hawaii’s major airports, and include significant service from both the Honolulu and Kahului (OGG) hubs to a short list of other airports around the archipelago. All of these flights are flown onboard the airline’s fleet of Boeing 717s, the final derivative of the venerable DC-9 to be produced. Service is frequent and fares are consistent. A flight on Hawaiian between HNL and OGG will run you between $170 and $180 in coach, whether you are buying months in advance or just prior to departure. Air travel between the islands is more than a luxury, it is a necessity. There is no other mode of public transportation between the major islands available to residents. One woman we met in our travels was making the trip between Maui and Oahu several times each week to visit her husband in the hospital.


Our view out the window shortly after departing Honolulu. This inactive volcano’s crater had buildings inside of it.

Our flights between HNL and OGG were just a couple of many that occur each day between Honolulu and Kahului. Hawaiian Airlines alone operates 20 flights per day each way between its two hubs. In addition, Mesa Airlines go! subsidiary, Island Air, and Mokulele Airlines (with one-stop service) operate another dozen daily departures between them, using a mix of CRJ-200s, ATR72s, and Cessna 208 Grand Caravans. That is, at least for now, since go! has announced that it is shutting down on April 1st. It isn’t yet known whether another carrier will pick up the capacity being abandoned by go!

While the Hawaiian Islands are relatively close together, they are still too far apart for anything other than air transportation to be used on a regular basis. Scheduled flight times between HNL and OGG range from 35 to 55 minutes gate to gate, depending on the aircraft used. In contrast, a short-lived high speed ferry service, while significantly less expensive, took 3.5 hours to make a similar journey.

The terminal experience more closely resembles bus service than airline service for these flights, especially in Honolulu. There, the jet bridges are off of a long corridor with minimal seating, while a large waiting room is nearby and serves all flights. Needless to say, the boarding area can get crowded quite quickly. Our inbound flight had not even arrived yet when the line began to form, and by the time the previous passengers had finished deboarding it seemed as if most of our flight’s passengers were already in line. Again, this was more reminiscent to us of the bus boarding process than that of an airliner.

Once the agents began allowing passengers to board, it went surprisingly smoothly. A quick scan of the paper boarding pass and we were on our way down the jetway. It is worth noting here that despite what their app says, there is no mobile boarding pass feature available. Despite being near the end of the line to board, there was a minimal wait both on the jetway and onboard the aircraft before we were able to take our seats. This was a welcome change from the boarding process on most domestic flights on the mainland.


POG, the taste of the Hawaiian islands.

Before we knew it, we had pushed back from the gate. After some exceptionally fast taxiing (which seemed to be a hallmark of these 717 flights), we were soon airborne. Flying time on our two flights was extremely short, with us only spending about 20 minutes in the air on each flight. With such short flights, there is no in-flight entertainment provided. Aside from the beautiful views out the window, of course! But to be honest, it really wasn’t missed in the least. Upon reaching our cruising altitude of 12,000-13,000 feet, the cabin crew came around with a quick beverage service. Your choice of water or POG (Passion-Orange-Guava juice, a local favorite) are offered. Both choices are served in a ‘cuplet’, one of those little plastic cups with a foil lid. This can be a little messy to open if you aren’t careful of course. On the outbound flight to OGG, they also came around with complementary maps of the island for passengers. This was a nice touch that was appreciated, even in a day where smartphones and GPS are common.


Excellent views of the runway from the terminal in OGG.

Just like in Honolulu, Hawaiian’s neighbor island operations in Kahului are in their own section of the terminal. Part of this is due to the intercity bus style of operation. However, there is another factor in play here. All passengers on flights departing for the mainland or Guam must clear an inspection by the US Department of Agriculture. This is to ensure that certain invasive species are not transported. While bringing pineapples and coconuts with you is allowed, many other forms of plant matter are not. The inspection process takes two steps. The first is at the curb, where any baggage you plan to check is run through a large x-ray scanner. Once it has passed, the inspectors wrap an “inspected” sticker around a handle and you proceed to check in as usual. The next step is inside the secure area, where any carry-on bags are scanned in smaller x-ray machines. These checkpoints are in various places around the terminal. So if you decide to wander the airport a bit, you may need to go through the process several times. We found the inspections to be quick and easy and the inspectors were cheerful and open about what they are looking for.

Equally quick was our experience with TSA PreCheck in Maui. Each of the five major Hawaiian airports (Honolulu, Kahului, Hilo, Kona, and Lihue) are equipped with dedicated PreCheck lanes. The experience here was far more smooth and we were through in a few minutes. It was a welcome relief from the regular line that appeared to be soul-crushingly long.


The Other Long Haul: Heading Home

The second long haul flight we experienced, heading back to JFK, was largely similar to our first. However there was one striking difference: it was a redeye. The overnight nature of this flight significantly changed the dynamic of it, and not necessarily in a good way.


The interior mood lighting takes on Hawaiian Airlines’ blue and purple color scheme.

Hawaii is a destination historically accessible primarily by longer range widebody aircraft. While this has changed significantly in recent years as aircraft such as the 737 have gained the range needed to make the flight from the west coast of the US, it still reflects in the somewhat dated design of Honolulu International Airport. The departure lounge for our flight was relatively spacious by comparison to what we were used to on the mainland. It was also well separated from the adjacent gates, with each gate having its own large room. The concourse was through a set of doors, and beyond that was an expansive, outdoor sidewalk and the aforementioned WikiWiki shuttle buses.

A gorgeous view as the sun quickly set behind our aircraft.

A gorgeous view as the sun quickly set behind our aircraft.

Everything started out similarly to our previous long haul flight. Our aircraft for the flight home was the newest A330-200 in Hawaiian’s fleet at the time, N395HA. This time we were seated near the rear of our plane, which meant we were among the first to board, thus avoiding the inevitable crowd at the gate. Boarding and getting settled in our seats was quick and easy, and once again we pushed back on time. Once airborne, we were treated to some amazing views of several of the Hawaiian islands as well as a submarine from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam leaving port. The flight attendants made a quick pass through the cabin with snacks, and then followed up with the meal service. 


Dinner onboard the flight home.

Dinner onboard the flight home.

Dinner onboard was somewhat uninspiring. The main dish (again, only one option for the entire cabin) was a five spice chicken that is served on many (but not all) routes out of Hawaii. While it was certainly edible, the flavors of the chicken and the asparagus seemed to meld together and then infuse the rice with that flavor. While we managed to finish the entree, we noticed many unfinished trays being returned around us. It was a decidedly stereotypical economy class meal.

As we flew into darkness, I knew it was time to try to get some sleep. I grabbed my noise-canceling headset and eyemask from my bag, and fired up the white-noise generator app on my phone. Finally, I reclined my seat a bit like much of the rest of the cabin had. This would prove to be a bit troublesome. It soon became evident that the mother and child seated behind us had no intention of sleeping on this flight, despite its redeye nature. The child behind me began periodically kicking my seat just as I got my eyemask in place. Meanwhile, the mother bumped my seatmate’s seat several times. Qt one point, she even told her son that she had tried forcing the seatback forward. And then the turbulence hit. For about one hour either side of the California coast, we were bounced around in light to moderate turbulence. Needless to say, this all combined to give us several hours of non-restful sleep. As we passed north of Las Vegas, things finally began to smooth out a bit and we were able to nap for a few hours.


Our breakfast onboard, just before arriving back at JFK.

We woke up as we were passing St. Louis, as the cabin began to stir. While we didn’t have the most restful sleep, it was enough to keep us alert for the next several hours until we were in our own bed. While there was still another meal to be served, we were anticipating another round of turbulence as we passed over Ohio. As a result, the flight attendants held off until the threat had passed. Sure enough, as we flew over eastern Indiana there were a few bumps to deal with. However, it was a far cry from the shaking we had experienced around California. The second meal on this flight matched the second meal on our flight to Honolulu almost exactly: a fruit cup, cheese and crackers, and a macadamia nut treat. Hawaiian Airlines calls this “breakfast” on both flights, though its not very breakfast-like. It also wasn’t terribly filling, though that would prove to be a good thing in short order.

Soon, we had begun our descent into JFK. We passed to the north of Newark Liberty International Airport and then over the tip of Manhattan. And then, as we were flying over Brooklyn, the bumps started up again. This time however they were less of a shake and more of a nausea-inducing up and down movement. As we headed out over the Atlantic Ocean before looping back towards JFK, we were taken on a wild ride that cost at least a few other passengers their breakfast. Crossing the shoreline once again was a welcome sight as we knew we would be on the ground shortly.

Moments later we touched down, and after some fairly aggressive braking we began our taxi to the gate. Given the early hour, there were very few other airplanes moving about the airport. As a result, we were at the gate in just a couple of minutes. Exiting the aircraft, the bitter cold New York air gave us a harsh slap back into reality. We walked the length of the terminal to baggage claim, and our bags met us there within a few minutes.

If you would like to read more about commercial aviation in Hawaii, check out “The Fascinating and Turbulent State of Hawaii’s Airlines” over at AirlineReporter.com

Ben Granucci, Associate Editor, is an aviation enthusiast and planespotter based in New York City. Growing up in Connecticut, he has had his eyes toward the sky for as long as he can remember. He can be reached on Twitter at @BLGranucci or through his blog at Landing-Lights.com

About the Author

Ben Granucci
Ben Granucci, Senior Editor, is an aviation enthusiast and plane spotter based in New York City. Growing up in Connecticut, he has had his eyes toward the sky for as long as he can remember. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.



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