72 Hours With Hawaiian Airlines: Talking to Flight Ops, the Ride Home in First Class

When I woke up on my final morning on Oʻahu, I had that usual sense of dread. There’s something really depressing knowing that the next time your head hits the pillow, it won’t be in paradise. But before it was time to go home, I first had a date with flight operations. More specifically, I sat down with Ken Rewick, VP of Flight Operations for Hawaiian and 717 pilot.

[Disclosure: Hawaiian paid for my flights and hotel]

Our talk started with the unique flying conditions in Hawaiʻi. Yes, the weather is very good, but I was surprised that they could only do a visual approach about 80 percent of the time. Then I remembered that places like Hilo see rain all the time. Still, interisland flying is usually done in nice conditions. And interisland pilots all sleep in their own beds every night. That’s something you don’t often see. (It also makes for an interesting mix with some of the most senior pilots preferring the 717 short haul operation.)

Since Ken is a 717 pilot himself, I asked about the airplane, and he had nothing but praise. He explained that the 717 was designed for the short, repetitive cycles that Hawaiian operates. Part of it is just the overall design, but there are specific things that help. For example, the fact that the control surfaces are connected by direct cabling gives it longevity, and after some early hiccups, the engines are really reliable now.

We talked about what could replace the 717, and there’s not much. Talking about regional jets, he said they were terrible for one reason… they just don’t have the baggage capacity you need in a market like Hawaiʻ. But the 717 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so they hope that there will be a capable airplane by that time.

Cockpit Procedures

What’s new in the ops world? Well, Hawaiian has computerized procedures training rooms these days (above) and now has an A330 simulator (which was busy so I couldn’t see it). That might not sound like a big deal, but consider that previously the airline had to send its pilots all the way to Miami for training on that airplane. That’s a hugely inefficient way to operate, though it’s still how things work with the 717 since there is no simulator available to purchase. (They can also train the 717 in Brisbane, but that’s still not ideal.)

The conversation naturally turned toward new pilot rules. Had Hawaiian seen an impact? The airline did staff up a fair bit in anticipation, but it has been able to back off those levels since the impact was less the expected. (I asked for actual numbers but never received confirmation.) Of course, flying a largely on time operation in good weather helps. There’s also very little concern about attracting new pilots. They have only minor attrition, and as Ken put it, “it’s not something that keeps me up. This is a pretty good flying job.”

Hawaiian Operations Center

After a little more chatting, we walked through the airline’s modest operations center where dispatchers and others monitor the operation. When I was there, we saw that a front had been causing moderate turbulence for some flights coming from the mainland that morning. So my return home would be routed south to avoid that. The real action, however, was on the JFK flight with a lot of storms along the way over the Continental US.

Feeling like I was in for a nice ride, it was time to go to the airport. Alison, my PR , had told me that they upgraded me to First Class, which was nice, so I was looking forward to it.

I arrived at the airport fairly early and sailed through security. After a long walk, I got to the gate only to find a big Korean 747 parked there. It was loading up and there wasn’t much room to sit, so I went one gate over to wait it out.

Our airplane pulled up around 1p and a short delay was announced. It seemed that gate issues were going to be the reason for the delay here and not any other reason. (Our airplane had been on the ground for hours.) Once boarding was finally called, I made my way through the saddest gate area on Earth (sunburnt tourists leaving Hawaiʻ) and boarded.

June 25, 2014
Hawaiian 2 Lv Honolulu 145p Arr Los Angeles 1010p
Honolulu (HNL): Gate 30, Runway 8R, Depart 17m Late
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 27, Runway 24R, Arrive 15m Late
N373HA, Airbus A330-243, Standard Hawaiian colors, 100% Full in First
Seat 3J, First Class
Flight Time 5h00m

The flight attendants were very welcoming, and it became apparent that they flew this route often. A couple of the other First Class passengers were greeted personally so they were clearly frequent fliers. Flight attendants came through with pre-departure drinks, and I just had some water.

First Class and Extra Comfort

Hawaiian has 3 rows of 2-2-2 abreast seating in First Class and I was on the aisle on the left side of row 2. The dark brown view from behind doesn’t carry through as much from the front where it’s a much lighter tan color. I’m a window guy but I was hardly about to complain. Still, when a couple on the windows in row 2 and 3 wanted to sit together, I jumped at the chance. It then got pretty complex.

The guy in the window in row 2 asked if the woman next to him on the aisle would switch with his girlfriend. But the woman on the aisle wouldn’t, because she didn’t want a window. So, I offered to give her my aisle seat and then I’d switch with the person in the window. This should have been simple, but that woman was, uh, interesting. She pulled out her cleaning products and started to go over the new seat in great detail, making sure that it was germ-free. But even then, she wouldn’t switch in case someone else had the seat next to her. I couldn’t quite figure out the rationale, but, well, whatever.

First Class Seat

Finally, close to the end of boarding, it was clear that there was going to be an empty seat, so she moved. (Someone who looked like an employee appears to have been upgraded into that empty seat, but the women didn’t complain.) I got up to move, and took my new seat in the window in row 3. My new seatmate chuckled a little and said that the woman there didn’t really want to sit next to her boyfriend. What the heck. I just took my seat and stared out the window.

Hawaiian Potstickers

We did take off a bit late, but it wasn’t long before we were above the clouds and heading east. At this point, the woman who had moved to my original seat decided to tell the entire First Class cabin to close their window shades. She was apparently extremely sensitive to light, and this was with her sunglasses on. I couldn’t believe how rude she was to demand that from the entire cabin, but I wasn’t about to cause a scene since Hawaiian flew me out. I closed my window and quietly grumbled.

The flight attendants came through with warm nuts and then with the meal. I had a really tasty potsticker appetizer followed by a half decent chicken that I barely ate.

Hawaiian Braised Chicken

Later, I had a very dry chocolate haupia cake for dessert.

The seat was comfortable, like an overgrown domestic First Class seat. With the manually-powered leg and foot rests, it was definitely a big step up from domestic First, but it was light years away from today’s international Business Class products. For this flight, however, it was great.

Hawaiian First Class Legroom

My seatmate was chatty but I ended up flipping on a movie (The Monuments Men, if you care), and that kept her doing her own thing. Once that movie ended, however, that was it. She talked my ear off the rest of the trip, despite me making several efforts to kill that plan.

At some point, I realized she was actually kind of interesting so I gave up, ordered a couple of scotches, and settled in for the rest of the ride home. The flight attendants were very attentive and kept thanking me for offering to switch with those other travelers. They didn’t know that I was thrilled to get my window.

I did sneak peeks out the window, and the sun eventually set so I could keep it open permanently. It wasn’t long before the lights of the LA Basin glowed on the horizon. We parked at the same gate from which I had departed a couple days earlier, and I was surprised to walk into a buzzing terminal. There are a lot of redeyes flying from Terminal 2 – that’s probably the peak time of the day there.

After trips like these, I’m usually very glad to be home after a grueling couple of days. But this time it was different. I’m never happy to leave Hawaiʻ. But it was an eye-opening visit with Hawaiian, and I thank them for opening up their doors to me.

Now, back to our regular programming.

Other posts from my 72 hours with Hawaiian Airlines:
72 Hours with Hawaiian: Flying to Honolulu in Extra Comfort
72 Hours with Hawaiian: A Unique Headquarters Setup, Flying Hawaiian’s Very First Airplane
72 Hours With Hawaiian: Across the Aisle From President and CEO Mark Dunkerley
72 Hours with Hawaiian: Meeting with Execs, Flying ‘Ohana by Hawaiian
72 Hours with Hawaiian Airlines: The Honolulu International Airport Modernization Plan

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