Hawaiian Airlines: Love it or hate it?

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I’ve been a fan of Hawaiian Airlines since I first flew them about five years ago when my husband and I decided to celebrate the fact that we were no longer struggling to make ends meet. Neither of us had ever been to Hawai`i before and the lure of a tropical escape was so great that I signed up for a Hawaiian Air Visa card and bought us two tickets to Maui. I also booked us a room at the Maui Sunseeker and all told, it was a fantastic trip. Aside from Virgin America, I hadn’t flown with a nicer and more genial flight crew taking care of me. And the staff at the Sunseeker truly made us feel like family during our first stay there.

Since that first trip, we’ve returned to Maui on several occasions because The Elf is a creature of habit and I’m happy to go along for the ride. Every time we’ve walked down the jetway it’s been onto a Hawaiian jet. Cheaper flights on Alaska? Doesn’t matter. Direct route to OGG on American? Don’t care. We’ve paid full price for first class seats on HA1 more than once too, though usually for just the return flight home as a means of softening the blow of returning to L.A. life. The first time it was a honeymoon extravagance just to see what it was like. The subsequent times because a taste of nectar is hard to forget. We are brand loyal boys, and Hawaiian won our hearts. That’s just my little bit of “full disclosure.”

Over the years I’ve spent flying with them, reading about them and interacting with them, I’ve developed an awareness of the loves and loathes expressed by people about the company whose slogan is “Hawai`i flies with us.” And the more I think about it, that slogan is apropos in several ways. For starters, there is a strong drive to provide a very genuine feel of warm hospitality. It’s a well-known fact that Hawaiian is the only US carrier that still provides a complementary inflight meal to every passenger on their domestic routes. Last year they even took it a step further by offering coach passengers a complementary Mai Tai or glass of wine before arrival in Honolulu.

Hawaiian has an impressive operational track record as well: They have been top-rated in on-time performance year after year, according to the U.S. DOT. They are also the oldest U.S. airline (Hawaiian dates back to 1929) to have never suffered a fatal accident. Add to that the fact that their flight crews are the constant recipients of kudos by Travel+Leisure and that the airline has also frequently been number one in fewest cancellations & baggage handling, and it’s easy to see the allure of flying them to paradise: It’s not just comfortable and friendly, it’s also faster and safer (from an inferential point of view).

If you’re a leisure traveler headed to Hawaii or points beyond for an unforgettable vacation, you’d be hard-pressed to fly with anyone else. They take all the medals for service and amenities if you’re flying coach to Kauai. And on a personal note, every time I’ve flown with them has been fantastic, regardless of the class of service. I always have an enjoyable flight, though in fairness I’m a pretty laid-back passenger.

There is a very casual, laid-back attitude hardwired into the culture of Hawai`i, which manifests repeatedly in the case of Hawaiian. Most of the time this is a good thing, but I think that sometimes it bites them in the ass. At its core, this attitude is about relaxing and slowing down. I think that if you look at them from outside a frame of reference that includes all those legacy carriers who are constantly competing with each other by luring travelers with promises of upgrades and wine, you start to get an understanding of how Hawaiian works. Everyone on board is ohana. They are all spending a morning/afternoon/evening in your house. Perhaps there’s no need for extravagant luxury, just comfort and quiet. And truthfully, this they facilitate quite well.

The impression is that the feeling of ohana is very important to the airline. After all, it’s what they named their new inter-island subsidiary. But we all know families can be a little dysfunctional. For instance, frequent travelers to the islands and mile collectors have become increasingly frustrated with the airline’s methods of rewarding loyalty. A quick scan of the FlyerTalk forums suggests public perception among jet-setters is that Hawaiian has an outdated first class cabin given that many of their flights are well over 5 hours, operates substandard lounges, keeps taking away perks, and is always looking for ways to devalue their HawaiianMiles program.

Then there’s the confusion over the HA business credit card, which employed an underhanded tactic of asking applicants for their existing HA Miles account during the application without disclosing that a new and highly restricted “business miles” account would be created for them regardless. I fell for this one myself and agree that it is indeed a sneaky move. It felt very bait-and-switch to me, especially when I found out that I couldn’t move the newly minted miles to my existing account and that the award redemption levels were higher. Now 35,000+ Hawaiian Miles are just collecting dust in this account. Maybe I’ll convert them to Hilton Hhonors points.

One has to wonder how this strange dichotomy evolved and took hold while Hawaiian continues to earn awards and recognition for their service. I for one, can understand both sides of the argument having recently dropped over half a million miles and points to secure two first class seats on a round-trip journey to Japan on HA. Half a million miles! No other airline demands such a hefty sum (though I’m sure Delta or United will in the not-too-distant future). Perhaps the mentality is that there’s less incentive for Hawaiian to pack on the perks when they’re starting with such a charming base product. After all, people who like the better service will stick around for it, right?

So let’s talk about their airport lounges. They aren’t fancy. Some of them aren’t even staffed. For the most part, all the really offer are a few snacks and a place away from the airport bustle. Compare that with your average long-haul airline, and it’s quite easy to draw a distinction between what’s just cozy and what’s more cosmopolitan. Flyers used to free wine and booze alongside kitchen food will be in for a bit of a shock upon entering an HA lounge. But with all that said, let’s be honest: It’s still better than sitting by the gate. And based on that alone, I’ll still gladly step inside if I’m given the option. I’m a patient enough person that I can wait for a glass of something stronger than guava juice until I’m on the plane.

As far as their front cabin is considered, no it is not a lie-flat seat. And on a long international flight or a JFK-HNL flight, it’s probably not a savvy traveler’s preferred way to fly. With so many airlines offering lie-flat or near lie-flat in their premium cabins and Hawaiian focused on an aggressive expansion into Asia, they’re going to have a tough time selling those seats for a comparable business class fare. If you’re catering mostly to the tourist class of folk who don’t travel to Hawai`i on a frequent basis, these plane configurations make a little more sense. But it’s still hard to imagine luxury travelers choosing Hawaiian over Cathy Pacific or ANA.

The recent announcement of a premium economy product coming to Hawaiian’s A330 planes is promising for those who want a step up from the standard economy seat (which honestly isn’t really that bad at all), but I can’t help but wonder why no attention is being given to an improved biz/first seat. If they don’t upgrade those LA-Z-BOY style seats soon, the only butts they’ll get into them are last-minute upgraders and mile redeemers. Business flyers will be on some other, more luxurious bird.

At the end of the day, does a glass of wine for everyone on board a domestic flight build more return business than a bottle for each of the 18 people up front? For Hawaiian, probably. Lord knows there will always be a slew of people headed to the islands in coach. But those economy seats alone won’t make Hawaiian good money. They need people up front who are there because they can afford a luxurious experience. HA already has a stellar flight crew, great food and a genuinely warm atmosphere. And that alone gives them the most straightforward opportunity to step up their game and outshine their competition.

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