By David Armstrong
My wife and I recently sampled Hawaiian Airlines’ domestic First Class service on a trip from California to the island of Kauai via Honolulu.
We flew west from Oakland International Airport (IATA code OAK) to Honolulu International Airport (HNL), and then transferred to a connecting flight to Kauai’s Lihue Airport. Eight relaxing days later, we flew back home the same way.
Hawaiian Airlines (whose IATA flight-designator code is HA) touts its generally admirable on-time record, and understandably so.
In April, Hawaiian came first for punctuality in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s survey of 15 major U.S. carriers. Hawaiian Airlines flights arrived on-time 94.4 per cent of the time in April. Impressively, the airline canceled just two of its 6,037 scheduled flights that same month.
Alas, it has been our luck to be significantly delayed on two of our four flights between California and Hawaii on Hawaiian in recent years.
In 2010, our five-hour flight to Honolulu departed Oakland 90 minutes late. This year, our return flight from Honolulu to Oakland was delayed for 75 minutes. That pushed our planned evening arrival home to just before midnight.
Of course, take-offs and landings are an often-complex minuet between airline and airport, and responsibility is not always easy to determine. Those two delays – as with delays on many carriers – were not explained. Given Hawaiian’s track record, a long delay is unrepresentative, but it happens.
On our outgoing flight on May 8 of this year, HA47 from Oakland to Honolulu, our Boeing 767-300ER widebody went wheels-up at 10:10 a.m., 15 minutes after the scheduled 9:55 a.m. departure time from the gate.
The 767-300ER’s 264 seats include 18 in First Class. First Class seats on Hawaiian’s 767s have a 42-inch pitch, are 18.5 inches wide and are arrayed in a 2-2-2 row configuration. By comparison, Economy Class seats have a 32-inch pitch, are also 18.5 inches wide and have a 2-3-2 configuration.
(On the carrier’s Airbus A330-200 jets, which are currently less numerous in the fleet than the 767s but eventually will replace all of Hawaiian’s Boeing widebodies as the airline takes delivery of more new A330s, First Class seat pitch is 45 to 46 inches; the seats are 18.5 inches wide and are set up in a 2-2-2 configuration.)
For our $1,162 round-trip First Class tickets, we got complimentary check-in for two bags, plus priority baggage handling, priority boarding, complimentary drinks, snacks and a meal. The airline has not yet installed Wi-Fi or seat-side chargers on its Boeing fleet, but HA’s Airbus planes have them.
Once we were airborne, Hawaiian’s relaxed but efficient cabin crew began to shine.
Flight attendants threaded down the twin-aisle aircraft offering First Class passengers headsets and digEplayer portable movie players. We preferred an ink-on-paper in-flight entertainment experience, so we buried our noses in magazines and books we’d brought along for airplane and beach reading.
Moreover, Mai Tais were on offer. Softly lilting Hawaiian music wafted through the cabin, reminding us of where we were going.
As we discovered to our pleasure, chef Chai Chaowasaree, born in Thailand and a Honolulu restaurateur who specializes in Pacific Rim cuisine, has designed toothsome meals for the front of the plane.
On the way to Honolulu, we lunched on three tapas-style morsels. I chose steamed mahi with steamed baby bok choy, braised spicy chicken with mushrooms and Asian mixed greens with roasted beets.
Our connecting flight to Kauai, HA373, took off on time for the 38-minute hop. I perused the monthly in-flight magazine Hana Hou and enjoyed the cloudscapes and the rugged emerald-and-brown outline of the ‘garden island’, as Kauai is known, from my window seat.
After eight days on the ground, we set off for home on May 22.
Prior to our inter-island flight from Lihue Airport, we stopped in Hawaiian’s Premier Club airport lounge. As a small airport, Lihue doesn’t benefit from having one of Hawaiian’s showcase passenger lounges.
The locked door to the windowless, unstaffed lounge didn’t cooperate when we punched in the open-sesame code, but a fellow traveler helpfully unlatched the door from the inside, perhaps prompted by my colorful language from the hallway outside.
The flight back to Honolulu – HA514, operated by a 123-seat Boeing 717-200 – departed and arrived on time. Space on the short-haul aircraft is less abundant than on larger 767s, but we didn’t feel cramped in the First Class seats, with their 37-inch pitch, 18-inch width and 2-2 configuration.
Then came the 75 minute delay of our flight to California. The long wait propelled us into an undistinguished airport fast-food restaurant to kill time.
Once on board HA48 bound for California, however, the airline’s spirit of aloha – the traditional courtesy and hospitality of the Hawaiian Islands – was much in evidence. We settled into our seats in the middle section of the cabin for the five-hour flight home, day-dreaming of our days in Paradise.
The Asia-Pacific-inspired food helped. I lunched on a cheese plate with prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, a shrimp and crab salad with crispy wonton tacos, and grilled chicken thigh with garlic Asian demi-glaze and mango salsa. Everything was tasty and smartly presented.
Bottom line: Hawaiian Airlines has its share of hiccups, but in this writer’s experience, HA trumps its much larger main competitor on mainland-Hawaii routes, United Airlines, 10 times out of 10 when it comes to unfeigned warmth, superior food and beverage choices and all-around customer service.
As reported by AirlinesAndDestinations.com, Hawaiian has recently expanded service to New York JFK and far-flung destinations such as Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND) and – coming in November – Brisbane Airport (BNE) in Australia.
It will be interesting to see if Hawaiian can maintain the high level of service and punctuality on long-haul routes that it has polished on short- and medium-haul flights since it began as Inter-Island Airways back in 1929.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others. He blogs at http://davidarmstrongontravel.blogspot.com.