Flying Hawaiian Airlines to Japan: A Mixed Bag

I’m taking a break halfway through posts about our trip to Japan to talk about our flight experience throughout the adventure. I didn’t expect to write this post, but our experiences kept replaying in my head and I had to write in order to move on to more exciting tales. Doing so felt uncomfortable and sad, an untempered emotional response. But I wrote it anyway. Then I lost the draft so I wrote it all over again. Ah, the joys and limitations of caching never cease to amaze.

It was good that I lost my first draft, though. If what I’ve written below sounds a little whiny, be glad you never saw the first draft because this post is mainly about wishing that I had a do-over of our flights home from Japan…

In case you’re new to this scratching post, I’ll start off by saying I’m a big fan of Hawaiian Airlines. Huge. Love them to pieces. Every time I’ve flown them to Hawaii it’s been awesome.  And while I’ve had my occasional frustration with their phone agents, the actual in-flight journeys had always been stellar. Whether it was very first experience flying first class ever or the incredible warmth of the flight crews or meeting the star of Hawaii Five-O on a flight, each time I’ve boarded a Hawaiian jet I’ve landed with a pocketful of memories. Our flights from Los Angeles to Fukuoka (by way of HNL) were no exception. For instance, on our first leg from LAX-HNL on March 23, I did something I haven’t done since I was about 9 years old: I asked to meet the pilots and take a picture with them:

Preparing for takeoff with Captain Kiki and First Officer Brett on Makali`i

Preparing for takeoff with Captain Kiki and First Officer Brett on Makali`i

There I am, giddy as a schoolboy who just traded his Jazz Transformer to a classmate for their Thundercracker. We kicked off our adventure in style and bounced along the air currents to Oahu and spent the night in the crapshack that is the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani. After a restless night, we returned to Honolulu International Airport for our connecting leg to Japan.

Clocking in at 10 hours, the HNL-FUK was the second-longest flight I’d ever taken and there’s no doubt in my mind that the team onboard flight 453 was determined to make sure it was a pleasant and comfortable journey. Even before takeoff I felt like the team at HNL was looking out for us. Months ago I’d upgraded our coach seats to business class because this was a pretty special trip to celebrate our anniversary, and due to a glitch in Hawaiian’s system Chris & I  ended up getting seated in different rows by the time our departure date arrived even though they had initially put us together. The gate agent was kind enough to call up other passengers on the flight to see if one of them would switch seats with us, and luck was on our side. Yay! So onto the 767 we went, eager to begin our adventure. It ended up being one of the nicest plane trips I’ve ever taken in my life.

The food was fantastic. We had a choice of a Western or Asian menu (Chris did Asian, I did not) and towards the end of the trip we were also treated to “Hawaiian High Tea,” which featured a delicious assortment of sweet and savory nibbles. Sorry there aren’t any photos. By this time, I had already down a couple glasses of wine… But hey, look, Mount Fuji!


We each received a cute amenity kit in a hibiscus print fabric bag filled with lotion, lip balm, a toothbrush, earplugs, a mask and even a keychain souvenir. And before we disembarked, we were each given a box of chocolate macadamia nuts wrapped in fabric in the tradition of omiyake. Throughout the flight, the cabin crew was polite, gracious and attentive. Their concern for our enjoyment of the journey was palpable. It couldn’t have been a better start to our adventure, except perhaps if the seats had been more comfortable. This is really the only disadvantage Hawaiian’s planes have over other carriers that offer transpacific service to Japan. But combined with the phenomenal speed with which we cleared customs & immigration, we couldn’t have asked for a nicer voyage to Fukuoka.


A little bag of aloha

Then came the flight home, and here’s where I get confused. With the bar set so high on our outbound trip, it was confounding that, apart from the meal, the flight from Kansai to Honolulu was pretty rough around the edges. Mind you, we were in business class on this leg as well, but for some reason the experience felt cheap in comparison to our previous flight.

For starters, there weren’t amenity kits like the ones we were given on our outbound trip at all. Instead, they passed out sleep masks, earplugs and toothbrushes from a tray. The inflight crew had a totally different demeanor than the Fukuoka team. The designated Japanese speaker on the crew said her translated announcements really, really fast. They were feisty, upbeat and in good spirits, which made the flight feel more like someone’s living room Super Bowl party: Friendly, but a little rowdy nonetheless. During preflight drinks, one of the sassier crew members chatted me up and was resting her arm on the back of the chair in front of us. This action agitated the chair and the passenger sitting in it. He asked her to stop, but she ignored the request until he asked the purser to intervene. After takeoff we tucked into our evening meal of egg flower soup, shrimp & scallop stuffed sole with lemongrass sauce, pickled vegetables, fresh fruit, and coconut panna cotta:

The headphones they handed me after our late dinner (why didn’t they hand them out before or right after takeoff?) were broken, so I had to ask for another pair. At this point, I started to wonder if they were having tough day, and not just because they acted genuinely surprised that faulty headphones would have even made it onto the plane. I had some Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups stashed in my backpack because like a fool I thought I’d need my own sweets in the face of all those amazing Japanese confections (I’m looking squarely at you, KitKat) and I gave them to the purser. She and the other crew members working the front cabin all stopped by my seat to thank me while I settled back into my seat and began an earnest attempt to rest. That didn’t work out so well, due the surprising reality that the recliner seats on their newer A330 jets are somehow less comfortable than the ones on their 767s.

I didn’t sleep, but I still appreciated the vote of confidence from the purser towards the end of the flight when she swore she saw me dozing. And even though this leg of our journey felt a bit less luxurious than the previous one, I still managed to keep a good attitude and treat myself by buying an overpriced $13 lapel pin of Pualani from the duty free catalog. The crew member who sold it to me was convinced that Hawaiian would be retiring her image in the very near future and said I might have a collector’s item in my hands now. In retrospect I wonder if this was actual employee gossip or just a sales pitch.

Given that these crews fly to and from Hawaii, they’re probably used to a plane full of excited tourists. I get that. But on a Wednesday night red-eye from Japan (where politeness and courtesy, even if it is a little superficial are hardwired into the culture), I’m not sure this was the right mood to foster. It felt markedly less classy than our flight 10 days prior, though again I say all this in the context of being seated in business class. The service wasn’t bad, but it was definitely rough around the edges. Had we been seated in economy, maybe this wouldn’t have been all that big of a deal. But considering where we were sitting,

We landed at Honolulu feeling cracked out and walked the half-mile from the gate to customs. This was really the shining moment of my trip planning, because thanks to our recent enrollment into Global Entry, it was an effortless procedure that left us with plenty of time to relax in the Premier Club lounge before our connecting flight to Kahului. When we reached the lounge hopeful for a quiet corner to pass out in for an hour, we instead found ourselves assaulted by the television blaring The Price Is right at high volume. Oh honey, no. We made a hasty exit and crashed into a couple of chairs at the gate instead. But we didn’t sleep there, either. By now, my body wasn’t tired so much as just plain confused, and Chris was rather surprised I didn’t drive right off the Pi`ilani Highway on our way to the hotel three hours later. I realize now that my college years of all-night rave parties were preparation for this very moment. Turns out it was Gecko’s time to shine.

On a side note, when we flew home from HNL to Los Angeles on another red-eye three days later in “first class,” there wasn’t a single eye mask on-board the plane. And while the crew did search the galley for an eye mask when I asked, they came up empty-handed. Seriously, Hawaiian? Delta treats their passengers better in economy on transcon red-eye flights. On the bright side, we got to fly one of their newly outfitted A330’s with the refreshed interior. On the down side, you still can’t really sleep in the first class seats.

Vanna, show them what they've won!

Vanna, show them what they’ve won!

Thankfully, I had saved mine from the Kansai flight and handed it over to Chris so he could try and get some sleep. I don’t really sleep well on planes to begin with so there wasn’t much point in keeping it for myself. It didn’t do much good however, because someone else in the First cabin snored so loudly during the whole flight that nobody in the front two rows was able to get any sleep. The hilarious part was that, upon landing, he loudly complained to everyone around him that he slept very poorly. I laughed so hard that, when the dude looked my way, I had to pretend Chris had showed me something horribly offensive on his phone.

The takeaway from this experience is that Hawaiian has a consistency problem. This was a very special trip for us, and unfortunately for Hawaiian, they really knocked it out of the park when we first set off for Japan. Had our journey to Fukuoka been more like the flight from Osaka, would I have found reason to write this? Definitely not. The service on our return flights wasn’t bad. But when they set a bar for the experience at one level, it was disheartening to watch them limbo their way under said bar as we made our way home.

The competition for Asia is fierce and Hawaiian will have to really deliver the goods if they want to succeed there. I’ll still gladly choose them over other carriers for daytime flights from L.A. to Hawaii, but I’ll be more thoughtful about who I travel with to the other side of the Pacific in the future (and I definitely plan to go back). I’ve bought first class seats on Hawaiian. I’ve upgraded economy seats with cash. I’ve upgraded seats with points before, too. But no matter how I pay for them, I’m pretty sure I’ll never willingly opt for a red-eye in business/first with Hawaiian again. It just doesn’t feel worth the expense.

If you made it to the end of this without wanting to slap me, I have a little contest for you. Tell me about your biggest inflight let-down in the comments and I’ll randomly pick one of you as the winner of my totally untouched Hawaiian Airlines amenity kit. I’ll also throw in a piece of omiyake from our trip: A cherry jam palmier from Fukuoka, the first stop of our adventure. You have until 11:59 p.m. on May 10th to leave your comment. Good luck!

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