Published in April 2016 issue

AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THEDESIGNAIR

In the heart of Honolulu Airport, our partners at TheDesignAir talk exclusively with Avi Mannis of Hawaiian Airlines on the carrier’s home turf, discussing the past, the future, the brand, the livery, and what it means to be a truly successful destination airline.

By Jonny Clark

THE ROOTS OF THE HAWAIIAN AIRLINES BRAND

When visiting the offices of Hawaiian Airlines (HA) (Airways, July 2015), just on the edge of Honolulu Airport (HNL), you’d be forgiven for thinking that you had been transported a few years into the future. There’s a modern open plan office featuring massive plasma TV screen walls in the reception, crew training rooms, a large mural that places Hawaii at the center of the earth, and a spacious restaurant featuring benches for Hawaii’s famous communal potluck.

These offices are exactly where the airline wants to be in terms of its product: a modern and progressive spin on Hawaiian culture.

We are sitting with Avi Mannis, Senior Vice President of Marketing, in a mood-lit meeting room that feels more W Hotel than office space. Excited to be finally able to speak with the carrier at length, we ask him to take us through the recent changes at Hawaiian Airlines.

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“It’s been a really interesting process,” Mannis says. “Last year, we laid out a map of where we were and where we wanted to be in 2017. It’s not in our nature, as a relatively small carrier, to do a big-bang rebranding. It’s expensive and it doesn’t feel organic. So what we decided to do was follow a multi-year process to bring all the elements of our product to where they need to be.”

We can’t help but notice a signature design style, unique to Hawaiian, all through the new workspace. It’s fairly easy to connect the dots and see the same design cues that can be found in HA’s new First Class cabin—which will be rolled out onto its Airbus A330-200 fleet—such as the resin dividers between the seats, which already feature in areas of the offices.

While this powerful Pacific boutique carrier already has a strong vision of what its future will be, Mannis emphasizes that it has stuck to its roots and to the true island spirit when thinking about its product and brand.

“The core of our brand is in our front-line staff members, who are largely from Hawaii, delivering service with a degree of aloha and care that you wouldn’t see on any other carrier in the world,” he says. “It’s something that no one else can replicate.”

It’s a sentiment familiar to many carriers that have invested in their hard product; trying to create a stronger identity through the genuine service of their staff. Alitalia (AZ), for instance, recently sent staff to its part-owner Etihad’s (EY) training center in Abu Dhabi to add polish to its service offering while maintaining its distinctive, traditional Italian roots.

“From a brand and identity standpoint, our job is to listen to who our staff are,” Mannis continues. “To take those values and come up with a corporate identity and design that takes what we do and brings it into a more contemporary global vernacular. We will always be rooted here in Hawaii. We aren’t going to transform ourselves into a Korean Air (KE) or JAL (JL) or ANA (NH), no matter how much I admire those airlines.”

The airline has longstanding roots in the Pacific, originally starting as a shipping company, ruling the waves between the islands. The airline is proud of its history, not only does it keep its archives on site, but it displays its historical timeline at the offices’ entrance.

“We want to find a new language that expresses what we have done since 1929, but to do so in a way that, while feeling rooted here in Hawaii, yet will still be at home in New York City or Tokyo. That is a really fun design challenge.”

THE FUTURE FOR HAWAIIAN

The carrier has established a new fleet and increased aircraft orders, making this a prime opportunity to reflect on the Brand and introduce a future-proof product. We have seen this already with the introduction of Hawaiian’s new First Class product, but the brand journey goes much deeper.

“We started this journey with color and the use of color, then moving to typography and, on the identity side, digital and photography standards have been brought up to a new level,” Avi says, talking mainly about the new website, which is already live. Yet, Hawaiian Airlines doesn’t seem to want to stop there.

According to Avi, “over the next 12 to 18 months, we will look at our logo, livery, and uniforms. I am 90% sure that we will have a new uniform line launching in 2017.”

“The logo is now 10 years old and works pretty well,” he adds. “There are things that we can do to refresh the look and contemporize it. Certainly, whenever bringing a new aircraft into the fleet, an airline will look at its livery because not many opportunities to make a change are as inexpensive as those it gets when buying new aircraft. We are looking at this, but we want to keep a lot of what we think is working, as our livery is still really well received by our guests.”

“They are seven years old now and we are looking at every aspect in which our brand is expressed and try to make sure that, as we grow, become more global and position ourselves as a destination carrier, every element of our product lives up to our brand,” Mannis says. “We have taken some big steps, but we have a long way to go.”

While HA could have rested on its laurels with the introduction of its new First Class cabins, the airline realices that the global stage continues to evolve and brands have to adapt to passenger needs. “In the industry, we are in a period in which design and brand have taken a big leap forward,” Mannis observes. “It was pretty stagnant for a while and we’ve seen many of our competitors invest in better expressions of their corporate identities; we want to make sure that we continue to do that too.”


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THE NEW HAWAIIAN AIRLINES FLEET

It’s not just a matter of out with the old and in with the new. Hawaiian’s older Boeing 767-300ERs may just help the carrier adapt to its ever expanding network. “With our 767 fleet, we have a degree of flexibility that helps us with our growth, but those aircraft are clearly going to be phased out; we will see most of them exit the fleet over the next couple of years.”

Sadly, the older 767 fleet won’t see the new First Class cabin, but Hawaiians’ new A321neos will have their own brand-new First Class product to compete on the West Coast routes.

“The new First Class product will be retrofitted into our current A330s in the second quarter of next year; the process will probably be completed by the end of 2017,” Mannis says.

“We will take the A321neos in mid-2017. Instead of the same seats, they will feature a whole new product that will be great and the right size for that market. We are trying to tailor a First Class product that reflects the mission of that aircraft and the guests that we are serving. We want our A321neo cabin not to look like anyone else’s.”

It must have been reassuring for Hawaiian to have Paul Wylde at the helm for the Boeing 717 retrofit and new Airbus A330 product. The designer had already showcased his skills in the US with his Mint product for JetBlue (B6).

“It’s actually really challenging, as the narrow-body gives you a lot less palette to work with when designing a First Class cabin,” Mannis says. “On the A330 project, it was about trying to find a language for the cabins that was unique and expressed our brand.”

The ever-increasing importance of brand spaces in the airline environment was made clear by Hawaiian’s fairly recent employment of an external design firm to help craft their cabin look and feel.

“We hadn’t ever worked with a designer before this A330 project, working purely on a cabin design,” he says. “It was always ‘buy the seats and pick the swatches out of the swatch book’. I think it was reflected in the cabins. They were different, but they didn’t feel they had a coherent language to them; even though the 717s look completely different from the A330s, there is now a continuity of design that we have purposefully built into all of them. They are very suited to their mission.”

Working in the Pacific might seem to be riddled with difficulties, as suppliers could be hard to come by, but being so remote hasn’t been a factor. “It’s been terrific working with Optimares (an Italian company) for the A330 First Class Cabin. It is a relatively new supplier, but has gained experience from other companies over the years. Because we were the first to market with this seat, we have gone through a very dynamic design process with them; so, between Optimares, Paul Wylde and us, we’ve had 18 months to make the product really unique.”

Teaming up with a supplier so far away has had an unexpected but welcome benefit. “We will be the first commercial launch carrier for the new seat type. A lot of the seat design will be owned by us and, while many airlines may take an interest in their seat type, none of theirs will look like ours.”

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HAWAIIAN’S COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE

Hawaii is a destination that is coveted by many carriers. In Asia, there is a wealth of flights vying to carry the most lucrative passengers to the islands, and, in North America, competition is fierce among the big three US carriers, Alaska (AS), and now even Virgin America (VX), which Hawaiian codeshares with.

But, on its home turf, Hawaiian has a home advantage: the aging HNL airport has a wealth of small lounges available to most carriers, but none are as spacious as Hawaiian’s. “We have now completed all of our lounge renovations here in the Islands, including the Plumeria lounge for our International Business Class guests here in Honolulu.”

It’s a different story, though, on the mainland. HA’s only outstation lounge in North America—in Los Angeles (LAX)— has now closed, meaning that domestic First Class guests won’t have a lounge offering. “It’s different if you are leaving internationally from any of our outstations, as we do have lounge partnerships in each of the airports, which are great.”

Honolulu has been undergoing renovations for some time, but none more important for growth than the new concourse that will come someday. “We will be the primary occupant of the concourse when it is built here in Honolulu. But it is still far away from being built. It’s taking much longer than we hoped. Renovating the airport is something we really need to do, not just as an airline, but as a destination. It still has its charms, but it is showing its age. You could almost bring it back to its 1950s fabulousness, but it hasn’t been maintained to that state.”

This hasn’t stopped Asian travelers, whose numbers continue to grow as a market to the Hawaiian Islands, but finding the sweet spot has been a challenge for a brand that isn’t so well known outside the USA.

“I think that our success rate is actually quite good in Asia,” Mannis says. “We still think that the future for us, as a destination airline, means that we need to look at the growth of travel in Asia, from markets such as China, Korea and South East Asia. So that will continue to be key to our growth, but we will grow at a more moderate pace.”

Things are not so easy in North America either, where the dominant carriers can still offer a network of connecting flights through to the Hawaiian state. “The challenge, the further east we go, are the more options our guests have, and, while we think that there is value in nonstop flights (and New York is starting to demonstrate that), guests would be choosing between a nonstop flight to Honolulu and up to 100 other connecting options, some of which may be much less expensive, depending on whether a route is on sale. The reality is that, the longer that flight gets and the more connection options over the route there are, the harder it is for us to operate a nonstop service.”

We ask about one still untapped connecting market: Asia to South America, where Hawaiian is perfectly positioned. “There are markets in South America that are in range, but, as visitor markets to Hawaii, they aren’t so developed that you could sustain a service,” he replies. “But, like economies are growing over in Asia, and are very likely to become much bigger, the same is true of Latin America.”

We ask Mannis about the near future of airlines, and where the battle to win over the all-important premium customers will be fought. “The arms race between hard product isn’t over,” he says. “I think that the core business market is going to continue to be the focus of a lot of carriers. It’s about how we get bigger, better, nicer seats, faster connectivity. These are things that will continue to be important.”

Hawaiian Airlines does have a secret weapon in its armory. “The one element that I think is really interesting is how to be ‘nice to our guests.’ To provide a sense of hospitality and real human interaction.” Mannis picks up his phone and, as if on cue, it starts vibrating.

“I think that more and more of my daily life is mediated through devices. The chances for true human interaction are becoming scarcer and scarcer, but equally more important differentiators. I think that it’s important for us, as a brand, to engender moments of genuine human interaction that aren’t scripted or formal, that cut through the noise of daily life and resonate with guests. We get that all the time in our customers’ comments, and that’s one of the things that stand out with Hawaiian.”

It seems that airlines in North America may be taking note of why people are choosing to fly Hawaiian. Mannis notes that some competitors are indeed trying to offer a better customer experience.

“Delta (DL), JetBlue and Southwest (WN) are all doing this really well. There is a real shift toward a ‘can we be friendlier’ effort. Finding more empathetic ways in which we can solve our guests’ problems is a space we play in very competitively.” However, what is clear to see is that Hawaiian, with an improved hard product, and its already successful service ethos, will be the one competitor in the Pacific that the other carriers will have to work hard to beat.