KAHULUI — Hawaiian Airlines celebrated the first flight of its newest fleet member, the Airbus A321neo, with service between Kahului, Maui, and Oakland.

Inaugural flight HA24 left Kahului Airport (OGG) at 1:30 p.m., and arrived in Oakland International Airport (OAK) at 8:59 p.m. local time.

“Most people don’t celebrate the day they leave Hawaii but today is a special day as we introduce the A321neo into our fleet,” said Jeff Helfrick, Vice President of Airport Operations.

PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

The Honolulu-based carrier is the one of the initial airlines to receive the Airbus A321neo aircraft, following Virgin America/Alaska Airlines, Novair, Air Astana, Azores, SriLankan, Avianca, All Nippon Airways (ANA), and VietJet Air. Virgin America launched the world’s first neo on May 30, 2017.

Following Delta’s blockbuster A321neo order, there are over 1,600 on order—a plane Airbus considers the true “Middle-of-the-Market” plane.

READ MORE: Mark Dunkerley to Retire as Hawaiian Airlines CEO

Uniquely, prior to the A321neo Hawaiian has had no previous experience with Airbus A320 Family series or any Airbus single-aisle aircraft. In preparation, the airline has been operating up to six revenue and crew familiarization inter-island flights per day since mid-December and even a recent unannounced ad-hoc flight across the Pacific.

Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

Mark Dunkerley, President and Chief Executive Officer of both Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. and its parent company, Hawaiian Holdings, Inc., says all in all entry-into-service has progressed smoothly.

“Hawaiian and the FAA and Airbus have been very professional about it. So I think the introduction has gone incredibly well. Obviously there was some frustrations with the late deliveries of the aircraft but the introduction itself is going extremely smoothly thanks to the hard work of people both within Hawaiian Airlines and outside it.”

An even more significant milestone is that this flight marked the first regularly scheduled Airbus A321neo ETOPS flight. Dunkerley commented,

“It so happens that the sweet spot for the A321 Neo is 2500 nautical miles which coincides exactly with all of our West Coast markets. So by happenstance this is an airplane that is ideally suited to the very particular markets that we fly.”

PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

Hawaiian Airlines’ Airbus A321neo is configured with a three-cabin layout, First Class, Extra Comfort Class and Economy Class, seating a total of 189 passengers.

The aircraft features offer streaming content to passengers’ own hand-held devices via an App to enjoy movies, TV shows and exclusive Hawaiian content.

READ MORE: Hawaiian Airlines Announces First A321neo Routes

According to the carrier, its Airbus A321neo fleet is named after Hawaiian native plants and forests. The first one, which was delivered on October 27, 2017, is called ‘Maile’.

The airline received its second aircraft last week with 16 additional Airbus A321neo aircraft on order, announced back in 2013.

PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

The Airbus A321neo fleet will replace older Boeing 767s, mainly on three routes: Portland (PDX) – Kahului (OGG); Oakland International (OAK) – Lihue (LIH); and Los Angeles International (LAX) – Kona (KOA).

Also, the Airbus A321neo will optimize current services on the Hawaiian neighbor islands to the West Coast, initiating new market frontiers and rightsizing capacity on seasonal markets.

READ MORE: Hawaiian Celebrates its 88th Anniversary Unveiling its New Hangar in Honolulu

Dunkerley discussed the significant implications of the A321neo for the carrier:

“First, this airplane is going to allow us to retire the 767s the last of which will leave our fleet by the end of 2018. The second thing is it’s going to allow us to grow capacity on existing markets in smaller increments than a widebody allows you to do, so that will help us grow existing markets. And the third thing is it’s going to allow us to fly to smaller markets for which a widebody is simply too large. So it’s an extraordinary airplane not only because of its performance capabilities but also for the way in which it neatly fits into our fleet and delivers this triple benefit.”

In fact, just before the inaugural flight’s departure, Hawaiian announced its first new route opening using the type between Long Beach (LGB) and Honolulu (HNL) that will commence on May 31, 2018. This will be the first announced A321neo route to fly from the airline’s Honolulu base to a second tier mainland market.

READ MORE: Hawaiian Takes Delivery of its First Airbus A321neo

The new LGB-HNL service will undoubtedly connect well with JetBlue’s existing feed. The South Bay customer base will gain its first nonstop service to Hawaii since both Aloha and United abandoned the route some years back.

PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

Peter Ingram, Executive Vice President, Chief Commercial Officer and incoming CEO of Hawaiian Airlines, shared his thoughts on taking a downgauge order of an Airbus A320neo to open smaller markets:

“I think that the Airbus A321, because of that size, has some unit cost advantages that you give up if you go down to the 320 and for a fleet our size I’m not sure if that complexity makes sense.

You know what we’ve talked about with this airplane is there’s a series of markets that make sense with a wide-body. A year or two ago we showed a slide at Investor Day and we talked about 20 markets to and from Hawaii with over 200 passengers a day throughout the year. We were in 18 of those and I think the other two we probably flew seasonally. The next year or the sort of 100 to 200 passengers a day. That’s where we’ve been relatively underrepresented. Some of our competitors are able to make a go of those ones because they’ve had smaller gauge equipment and two because you know maybe they have connections on the other end of the route, behind the route. We think that there’s a number of those markets in that sort of next tier of market sizes down that are the perfect examples.”

READ MORE: Hawaiian Airlines Reveals Their A321neo Cabin Design

The addition of the Airbus A321neo fleet will expand Hawaiian’s U.S. West Coast presence, providing passengers several alternatives for direct access to the neighbor islands with these three new non-stop daily routes:

  • From January 18, 2018: Portland (PDX) and Kahului, Maui (OGG). The second A321neo that just arrived will operate this service.
  • Until April 11, 2018: Oakland (OAK) and Lihue, Kauai (LIH), which started on September 4, 2017, as a daily seasonal widebody service.
  • Beginning March 11, 2018: Widebody service between Los Angeles (LAX) and Kona, Hawaii Island (KOA).
Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

Inflight Review: Saying Aloha to the A321neo

On Monday, January 9, 2018—five years after it was first ordered—Hawaiian put the A321neo into service for what it was intended for: Neighbor Island to US West Coast Markets. It also marked the debut of a new hard and soft product for the brand. Airways was onboard to cover this milestone.

The festivities were already underway at Kahului, Maui when N202HA ‘Maile’, ferried in from Honolulu, blocked in to appropriately and coincidentally to gate 21.

Most passengers were completely unaware of the auspicious occasion, but Hawaiian wasn’t going to allow the event to past unnoticed.

The requisite refreshments were being served at the gate area where there was an initial clue that this was no ordinary flight. Camera phones came out and interest really came alive when a Hawaiian Hula band took the stage for an hour-long performance.

Hawaiian blesses new aircraft when they are delivered. But in this inaugural flight a Kapu, a Hawaiian priest not only blessed the airplane, route, and crew, but the passengers as well.

Instead of the customary water cannon salute, it was the passengers and crew that got wet. The Kapu charmed everyone by sprinkling holy water throughout the gate area with the words “if you get wet, you get good luck.”

Debbie Nakanelua Richards, a longtime corporate communications executive who performed at the gate event, couldn’t hide her enthusiasm. “It’s like a welcoming a new baby to our family,” she said.

After the brief ceremony, boarding of the full flight began with each passenger being presented with a lei. As we boarded, a Hawaiian passenger we overhead who had flown in on a 767 immediately noticed the difference and remarked, “This beautiful plane smells like a new car and softens the blow of having to leave Hawaii a little.”

During the boarding announcement, the customer service agents made multiple announcements encouraging passengers to download the Hawaiian Entertainment streaming app to their smartphones. While available from GooglePlay inflight, the app must be downloaded from the Apple App Store before departure as there is no in-flight wi-fi internet connectivity to the ground.

“Our crew was more than a little giddy at having been chosen to operate the flight.” Captains Kahai Mac and Lyle Chan said they both “just got lucky” to fly the inaugural. Even the FAA check pilot on the flight deck was excited at the prospect.

There was a palpable sense of pride in the Hawaiian crew’s five Flight Attendants. They had bid this flight, especially for its significance.

Flight Attendant Dottie Higa, a 34-year veteran said, “my career has spanned all the way back to the DC-8s and DC-9s, but this plane is very special in that it shows how far we have come.”

The cabin crew had spent two days training on an A321 cabin mockup at the HNL base and were eager to mobilize and put what they knew to the test.

During boarding, menus and the airline’s signature Mai Tais were passed out to First Class passengers amidst a backdrop of soothing Hawaiian music and soft red and orange-hued mood lighting. As is typical at Hawaiian, meal orders were taken on the ground.

Before pushback, passengers were again reminded to download the Hawaiian app, lest they forget and potentially be stuck with no streaming entertainment—a downside with the new streaming personal electronic device solutions.

Initial impressions of the cabin were very positive. Even though the B/E Pinnacle economy slimline and MiQ First Class seats were off the shelf, the cabin’s design touches echoed an upmarket island aesthetic.

With understated branding on the bulkhead and cabin dividers, a green orchid in the lavatory, soft natural colors, and the soothing lighting scheme, the cabin configuration conspired to make this densely populated aircraft seem somewhat roomier, and anything but generic. The lighting cues themselves reflected the bright sunrises and sunsets of the islands.

In-Flight Entertainment

Sure, Hawaiian’s new A321 lacked some of the innovative and bespoke touches like the Marketplace found on JetBlue’s A321s or flashy seatback in-flight entertainment systems (IFE). But compared to the other generic cabins narrow body players in this leisure based market, Hawaiian’s visual and sensual cues unmistakably evoke the islands’ idyllic environment in textiles, textures, and color.

We pushed back precisely on-time at 1:30 pm HST. Hawaiian is rated the world’s most punctual airline so delaying an inaugural would be unacceptable.

Fortunately, the sometimes temperamental Pratt & Whitney PW1133G-JMs cooperated.

At 1:45 pm, the noticeably quiet footprint of the GTFs did their thing with an effortlessly quick 25-second takeoff roll at max thrust, shooting us into the placid Hawaiian skies.

The engines were so quiet one could hear the engine packs on takeoff, and possibly a few sobs of people sad to leave the Islands.

There was no applause, but if you listened carefully, you could almost hear the airline’s financial teams toasting the 20% reduced fuel burn this new toy has to offer.

To entertain the passengers heading on their dream vacation or back to reality, in-flight entertainment is a key diversion. The first order of business on the part of the flight crew was distributing iPad mini tablets just after takeoff in First Class. They are free in First and for rent in Economy.

The Personal Entertainment Devices’ (PED) holders embedded into the folding seat tray in First Class and seatback in Economy are a nice plus. Funny enough, they also double as lei holders.

The tablets in First can be freestanding as well as locked into place using the double swiveling support bracket. The tablets are pre-loaded with similar content available for streaming on the in-flight Wi-Fi product so one can get the second screen experience.

PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

While the iPad mini tablets have slightly more movies, the streaming PED product has more offerings and functionality overall, including music, flight information, and moving maps.

The IFE, while responsive and intuitive, does not have a robust catalog on either the Digi E tablets or streaming PED product.

I counted nine movies, 19 TV series, 19 albums, and one single game of golf.

The PED streams moving maps and flight information display, however unlike the tablets.

The tablets can’t access the in-flight streaming system, so they seem somewhat redundant and inferior to the PEDs. Still, it’s a nice optional touch for those so inclined.

Accompanying the tablets are over the ear headphones. Though not Bose with noise-canceling technology, they are an improvement over the tiny earbuds offered by some airlines.

Onboard Catering Service

Although the airline has downplayed it, the debut of the A321neo coincides with a new catering program, particularly in Economy where Hawaiian continues to be the only US airline serving meals domestically. More on that later.

Up front in the pointy part of the plane, shortly after takeoff, catering kicks off with snacks and beverages.

As is mostly the case, Hawaiian’s menus reflect those of its island home. First up, the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nuts—which have developed some cult following.

PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

The beverage service consists of a full selection of spirits, beers, and wines—and yes, you’ve guessed it, Mai Tais.

Our appetizer choices consisted of a Cold Tofu Salad with Kim Chee and Watercress or Jiodori Chicken Salad with Ginger Scallion Oil.

I chose the latter and found the chicken a bit dry but the fresh greens mix was ultimately satisfying.

PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

For the Main Course, the selection was Ground beef and Portuguese Pork Sausage Meatloaf, Homestyle Gravy with sautéed mushrooms, Potatoes and Kale.

This traditional Hawaiian meal is quite filling and deliciously cuts against the grain of generic airline food.

PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

Hawaiian cuisine isn’t known for being uber healthy, so the kale seems like a bit of a concession.

For the vegetarian or health-conscious inclined, a Zucchini and Eggplant Lasagna with Curry Tomato Sauce was offered.

With all the sugar consumed from Mai Tai cocktails, the idea of dessert almost seems like tempting fate. But when you’re on vacation or soaking up the last fraction of it—fate be damned.

There was only one option on the dessert list: Chilled mini passion orange guava POG Pie, by Hawaiian Pie Company. Not only was it delicious, but another example of how Hawaiian chooses to embrace its island vibe.

PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

In Economy, this flight heralded the introduction of a new catering service with three service rounds: meal, coffee, and dessert. Mahalo Service in the form of the Pau Hana snack mix, and Koloa Rum Punch.

This provides more touch points between Hawaiian crews and passengers. Even First Class doesn’t receive a snack service.

While a warm sandwich and punch might not seem like much, it is a step above what Hawaiian’s competition offers in this low yield, leisure market.

Hawaiian has never wavered from catering meals to its economy customers. And for a good reason.

This ethos extends to the broader service proposition and what Hawaiian perceives as its advantage even while competitive capacity continues to mount in Hawaii, says Dunkerley:

“For many people, a vacation to Hawaii is the highlight of the year and very important. They want to feel regardless of class that they are beginning their vacation the moment they get onboard to the moment they disembark. Our crew gives delivers that hospitality of the Islands. It leads to guest satisfaction. It also generates a revenue premium for the company.”

Exploring the surroundings

After the meal service concluded, the mood lighting was dimmed and put to good effect bathing the cabin in subtly cycling washes of green, blue, purple, red, and teal with the sidewalls indirectly lit in a peach hue.

Here, Hawaiian gets kudos. So many airlines either implement the bare minimum of their LED lighting or ignore it altogether, Hawaiian’s program was adventuresome and mature.

First Class

With a few hours left ahead of us, it was time to put the new hard product debuting on this flight, the B/E MiQ seats, to the test. The four rows of 16 First Class seats are arranged in a 2-2 configuration with a generous pitch of 45-46,” and 18” of width. No other narrow body airliner to the islands come close.

Even though they are not the widest seats in the skies nor do they have significant recline, they feel perfectly comfortable for the relatively short flight times.

According to the airline’s press materials, the cabin design “tells the story of our islands in textiles, textures, and color.”

“We drew inspiration from kapa (bark cloth), traditional fishing nets, and the geography and natural elements of our islands,” the airline claims.

These leather-clad seats with their recline and footrest are comfortable, though a bit firm.

My only complaint is that it would be nice for the armrest to retract and the tray to swivel out of the way to avoid having to stow the tray for seat egress.

Also, a separate slide out drink tray would afford more real estate on the tray table, and keep liquids away from computers in the often turbulent Pacific skies.

There is a very convenient touch of water bottle storage at the front spine of the seat pair, but it was not provisioned on our flight.

The large tray—which folds full width and in half—and the swiveling PED mount in both configurations is a useful piece of ergonomics.

It is so large that it accommodates a 15” laptop computer and the mini tablet, or smartphone at the same time when it is folded out full.

The USB and AC power are located on the front spine of the seat and additionally in the center armrest which also doubles as a storage cubby.

Economy Class

Back in Economy Class, Hawaiian has a typical A321 cabin, though not Low-Cost Carrier dense.

There are 45 Extra Comfort Seats with a spacious pitch at 36-37” and width of  17.3″. The remaining 128 economy seats have 31-32” pitch.

Each B/E Slimline Pinnacle seat has handy PED holders on the seat-back instead of seatback screens. USB and AC power is also available.

The literature pocket, relocated to the top, allows for the feeling of additional legroom, despite the denser cabin resulting from slimline seating. The emergency exit seats have a smaller version of the MiQ tray accommodating a separate PED.

Most passengers in either cabin were initially unaware of the PED mounts and thus continued to hold their devices in their hands.

In the future, as this is still a relatively new feature, Hawaiian cabin crews might consider a demonstration or announcement as to how these work.

Mercifully, Hawaiian chose not to order the new SpaceFlex lavatories, retaining full sized lavatories in all classes.

Excellent Product, Overall

Exactly on-time, at 8:59 pm PST, the maiden Hawaiian Airlines Airbus A321neo scheduled Transpacific flight kissed the runway in Oakland to a smattering of applause.

Mother Nature’s rain showers provided the water cannon salute, thus beginning the routine operations of Hawaiian’s optimized ETOPs A321neos across the ocean.

Overall, the impressions are quite positive in that Hawaiian’s A321neo is a potent new weapon in its arsenal to combat its new and existing competitors’ additional capacity being added into the market. As well, the airline believes it can continue to command a revenue premium on the strength of its brand promise and ultimate consistency in the passenger experience. Something the airline will need to build on to achieve to retain its North American industry leading operating margins – 24% in the 3rd quarter of 2017 alone.

Coupled with its unique Aloha service offering and industry leading operational metrics, Hawaiian has home field advantage in the islands. And it has no intention of surrendering it.

Disclosure: Hawaiian Airlines provided the ticket for this flight at no cost. The opinions and views of the writer are his own.

Editors Note: In coming weeks, look for additional Hawaiian Stories including:

#HighFlyer C-Suite Interviews with Mark Dunkerley, Peter Ingram, and Avi Mannis as the airline transitions senior leadership for the first time in fifteen years.

Trip Report of Hawaiian’s Airbus A330 Lie-Flat Premium Product with a stunning service recovery story following a mid-flight emergency.