Published in July 2015 issue

Did you know here’s a domestic route within the United States of America where you could be up in the air for almost 11 hours and travel through six time zones? This is indeed possible when you fly almost 5,000 miles (9,200km) from the US East Coast to the paradise in Hawaii. This route soars you through the North American territory for over five hours to then face the Pacific Ocean’s ruthless skies until reaching a secluded territory full of wonders, many aviation opportunities, and some of the friendliest airline operations on the globe.

By Enrique Perrella

Hawaii, the world’s longest island chain situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is the 50th state to join the US—the southernmost, and the only that is not located on the North American continent. Its beautiful 132 islands, which extend up to 1,523 miles across the central Pacific, lie as far south as some cities in Central Mexico.

The Hawaiian Islands have become a prime destination for savvy travelers, retired seniors, honeymooners, and nature addicts. The volcanic nature of this utopian location attracts millions of tourists year-round, offering varied scenery, activities, and top-notch aviation possibilities, which will surely inspire anyone to hop around the most populated islands through the very few air carriers based in this far corner of the globe. For this reason, airlines like Delta and United send their high-density aircraft filled with award ticketed passengers who spend their frequent flier miles on a dream vacation.

Hawaii is most recognized for its four main islands. World-class tourism is mostly developed on the islands of Maui, Oahu, Kauai, and the “Big Island,” which is actually named Hawaii. All of these, separated by less than 300 miles, attracted 8.2 million tourists in 2014, all arriving by air.

Craving to experience the wonders of this renowned spot in the middle of the Pacific, I booked an aviation-filled trip from mainland US to Honolulu, and continuing to Lihue (Kauai), Kona (Hawaii) and Kapalua (Maui), all with the island’s three main carriers—Hawaiian Airlines (HA), Island Air (WP), and Mokulele Airlines (MW).

FIRST: GETTING TO HAWAII

Reaching Hawaii from mainland US is simple. Alaska (AK), Allegiant (G4), American Airlines (AA), Delta Air Lines (DL), Hawaiian Airlines (HA), United (UA), and soon Virgin America (VX), offer daily and continuous service to Honolulu International Airport (HNL), Kahului Airport (OGG), Hilo Airport (ITO), and Lihue Airport (LIH) in the beautiful island of Kauai.

The main gateway to the Hawaiian Islands is HNL, hosting an array of domestic and international airlines that few other airports in the US are graced to see. HA calls this airport its main hub, and there it operates the country’s most on-time connections.

Our prime choice to reach Hawaii was through the world’s second longest domestic route, New York (JFK) to HNL. Totaling 4,983 miles (8,019km), this leg sits behind Air Austral’s (UU) service from Paris (CDG) to St. Denis (RUN) on the French island of Reunion, east of Madagascar—5,809 miles (9,349km).

Unfortunately, though, Delta’s seasonal flight out of JFK operated only between December and early February, leaving us with no choice but to connect through Salt Lake City (SLC) and take the airline’s tight Boeing 767-300. The JFKHNL route, however, is available year-round with Hawaiian Airlines. The carrier operates its Airbus A330-200 on the 11-hour flight.

Flying to Hawaii from mainland US is a stirring experience. Senior passengers are often seen wearing the typical Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and sandals. Agitated teenagers run around the boarding gate, and honeymooners can barely wait to set foot on the island. Upon boarding, flight attendants (FA) welcome all passengers with the typical “Aloha!” (Hello in Hawaiian), wearing the traditional lei (a garland of flowers hanging from their necks). Business Class passengers are met with a glass of Mai Tai—Hawaii’s signature drink—marking the start of the trip to the islands.

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HONOLULU: THE MIAMI OF THE PACIFIC OR LITTLE TOKYO?

I was bewildered when an American Airlines frequent flyer with Executive Platinum status described Honolulu as the “Miami of the Pacific.”

“When you get to Honolulu and run into traffic, right next to the bay, you’ll notice an immediate resemblance to South Beach,” he told me a couple weeks before the trip. “But when you get off the plane and walk through the semi-open terminal with all those Hawaiian and Asian airplanes, I think you will definitely feel you’re in a different place.”

After our six-hour flight from SLC, we deplaned frantically. Vending machines throughout our walk to the baggage claim area weren’t selling sodas and water, but beautiful flower leis—costing as much as $350 apiece—as well as Macadamia nuts of all flavors and types. A couple airplane shops appropriately named “Flight Deck” offered moderately priced aviation goodies such as scaled Gemini and Sky Marks airplane models, beautiful Pan Am flight bags, and other products, which would make any serious aviation enthusiast lose track of time and miss his flight back home.

The baggage claim area was filled with noticeably hyped passengers. I can vouch that at least 60% of all male travelers were either wearing hats or Hawaiian flower shirts, creating quite a unique ambiance that I had never experienced before.

Our days in Honolulu were short and quick. The Waikiki Beach area allowed us to experience the Miami type of nightlife, and an Asian touch that is provided by the prominent Japanese locals and tourists. In fact, Hawaii was the first US location to become a major destination for immigrants from Japan. In Honolulu, roughly 23% of the population is Japanese and more than 80% of the tourists from this Asian country travel only as far as Honolulu and its surroundings, making this city a Little Tokyo rather than a Miami of the Pacific.


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FLYING TO KAUAI: A FEW GREAT CHOICES

After doing some research, I found out that only a few airlines fly between the islands. Hawaiian Airlines, the ruling queen in the region, offers consistent and overpowering frequencies between most airports, with connecting times impossible to beat. In fact, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) named it America’s Most Punctual Airline in November 2014 with 89.4% of flights and connections arriving and departing on time, and a stunning figure of 0.1% of cancelled flights over the same period of time.

Looking to diversify, I explored options to fly from HNL to Kauai. Both HA and Island Air offer several flights to the airport of Lihue (LIH) at competitive prices. At the time of booking (in late 2014), Island Air was promoting the arrival of its new Bombardier Q-400s, which are slated to substitute its aging ATR-72 aircraft. Since HA had its Boeing 717s operating the route, I decided to fly the smaller carrier instead and hope to ride the new Q400s. After securing a base fare of $54 per person, I booked two tickets through the easy-to-use website.

Island Air operates out of the commuter terminal at HNL. We arrived nearly 70 minutes ahead of our 08:38 scheduled departure at the small building that the airline shares with Mokulele Airlines. Two gracious and friendly clerks scanned our passports and checked in our two large and heavy bags for a $15/each charge. The TSA screening line had only one passenger ahead of us, so we walked to the solitary gate area with more than an hour ahead until departure. Unfortunately, this terminal has no restaurants or coffee shops—just a small Quiznos stand that unashamedly charges $30 for a large sandwich. That morning, breakfast was not an option for us.

As boarding initiated shy of 10 minutes behind schedule, the few passengers booked on flight WP415 walked a few feet to the nicely kept ATR- 72 aircraft (the Q400s had not been delivered yet). After snapping a few photos in front of oblivious security agents, we boarded Manawanui through its back door. The customary Aloha from a well-dressed FA, with a nice green flower adorning her hair, welcomed us to the small and unfilled cabin, inviting us to sit wherever we pleased. A few minutes later, we taxied and departed to the west, heading to the westernmost inhabited island.

As our ex-American Eagle, 1993-delivered aircraft dashed through thin Hawaiian clouds, a quick in-flight service consisting of “freshly brewed” Kona coffee, orange juice, or water, was distributed by the friendly FA. Island Air’s inflight magazine, Kikaha, a well-designed safety card, and stunning views outside the window are the only entertainment options onboard these turbo prop aircraft.

About 40 minutes after leaving Oahu, the FA announced our imminent arrival to the island where Jurassic Park was filmed. As a pilot myself, I could feel the captain hand-flying the aircraft as I enjoyed the gorgeous scenery that accompanied us that day. After the landing gear was deployed and we neared Kauai’s coastline, I spotted—for the first time in my life—a huge whale jumping right below us. That’s something we’re not used to seeing in the East Coast, or the Caribbean for that matter. The captain then performed an impeccable landing and, seconds prior to applying the parking brake, the FA announced it was Captain Charlie Ciszek’s retirement day, with only one more leg until he finally hung his hat. No wonder he was hand flying the aircraft! As all passengers deplaned, Captain Ciszek asked to take a picture with us and his crew—a wonderful touch that will go down memory lane as one of the most special moments of our stay in Hawaii.

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A QUICK CONNECTION TO THE BIG ISLAND

After three magnificent days in what easily became our favorite spot on Earth, it was time to change islands and head southeast to the Big Island of Hawaii. Unluckily, though, there are no direct links between Kauai and Hawaii, so we decided to use the ultra-efficient connecting hub in HNL to try and gain some sunbathing time for my wife in Kona. Hawaiian offered decent rates, starting at $137 per passenger; the itinerary, with a departing time from LIH at 07:06, stopped in HNL for 25 minutes, to then connect to Kona (KOA), arriving at 08:57.

As we arrived to the lovely airport of Lihue, our bags were rapidly checked for $25 each. This time, a Starbucks with a nice view of the tarmac and our Boeing 717 to HNL, paired up perfectly for a comforting breakfast.

The full flight to HNL (HA110) boarded right on time. We made our way to the gate and, upon boarding, passengers clogged the gate area in the typical American way—unlike Island Air’s calming experience. The airliner, very well kept on the inside, pushed back three minutes ahead of schedule and less than five minutes later, powerfully departed towards HNL. The speedy inflight service, consisting of coffee and a special Hawaiian Airlines fruit juice, were distributed about the cabin. The FAs, although nicely presented, were not as friendly and devoted as in Island Air—not surprising, as this crew is subject to many more flights and turnarounds per day.

Our arrival into Honolulu was on time. We deplaned, walked a few feet to a neighboring gate, and boarded our next flight to KOA (HA368). Our identical Boeing 717 pushed back, departed and landed after offering us an undistinguished service. Landing in KOA was dead-on punctual and, once again, I managed to spot another whale floating a few feet away from the shoreline. I was astonished at Hawaiian’s reliability and the fact that whales are as common as seagulls at any beach in South Florida.

Kona’s outdoors terminal offers spectacular tarmac views. Our aircraft parked right in front of the gate area, which was adorned with palm trees and rock sculptures. The airport’s surroundings are noticeably different from what we saw in the Oahu metropolis and the Kauai forest, as black sand and tremendous black stones were part of the scenery. Large mountains, which are part of the five volcanoes that gave life to this formidable island, make up a landscape that takes one to another planet. Vegetation is scarce, and temperatures can range from the high 30º C (80º F) to near-freezing points on top of the mountains.

MAUI: FLYING MOKULELE

Two days after visiting the world’s most active volcano (Mt. Kilauea) and the southernmost point in the US, it was time for yet another flying experience. This time Kona-based Mokulele Airlines won the bid to take us to the island of Maui, with a ticket price of $70 per passenger. The 1994-founded carrier, which historically operated Piper Navajos and Embraer 170s during its temporary agreement with Republic Airways (YX), currently operates a fleet of 15 Cessna C208 Caravans, and focuses its services exclusively on island hopping.

Mokulele operates out of both Kona and Hilo on the island of Hawaii. Given our proximity, we chose to depart out of KOA to the small/private airport of Kapalua (JHM), in western Maui. Flight 1781, scheduled to depart at 10:15 out of the commuter terminal in KOA, requested passengers to arrive one-hour prior.

Diligently, we arrived as requested, though a heavy thunderstorm unfolded. The commuter terminal lacks a roof and seating area, and so all Mokulele passengers were under the relentless rain and without a proper place to sit. Because of the weather and poor terminal conditions, breakfast was once again an unresolved issue.

Check-in for all flights was conducted at the small counter, where a friendly lady scanned all passports, and weighed both passengers and bags on a scale. The automated system the carrier uses generates a weight-and-balance sheet for the Cessna single engine aircraft. Once all passengers are checked in, the system assigns the seating location, making sure the aircraft is well balanced within its limits.

Regrettably, our flight to JHM was ultimately delayed because of the weather conditions. Pilots and agents were in bad moods and passengers noticeably worried. Boarding initiated under the heavy rain and we entered the aircraft soaked, even though the airline provided umbrellas. Thankfully, our flight was partially loaded, with only six passengers and two pilots onboard.

After a quick taxi and takeoff, following the First Officer’s (FO) safety instructions, we left the black island of Hawaii behind. Immediately after, our Caravan went into full instrument flight rules (IFR) conditions and we weren’t able to enjoy any sightseeing until moments before touching down in Kapalua 53 minutes later. Curiously, the FO enticed us to look out the windows for some whales. I wonder if they were really in IFR? Upon arriving in JHM, we deplaned and headed straight into the minuscule terminal. Both pilots, after apologizing for the extra 25 minutes inflight (dodging weather) accompanied us inside to dry up and head back to KOA.

With this hop out of the way, our flying experience in the Hawaiian Islands was rapidly coming to an end. Just one more identical flight from Kahului to Honolulu with Hawaiian Airlines and a long-haul leg back to Atlanta on the Delta’s A330-300 separated us from the end of a marvelous trip.

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THE HAWAIIAN TRAVELER

For a first-timer, Hawaii is truly a magnificent place to visit. Even though there was a lot more to see, we managed to grasp a little of everything, leaving enough on our plate to come back and enjoy.

Our itinerary choices were downright accurate and all bookings were easily made through each carrier’s online tool. We managed to calmly fly from HNL to LIH on Island Air, luckily being part of the retirement of Captain Ciszek, and enjoying the best and friendliest service of all the flights we were on. We then took advantage of the speedy and reliable connecting product Hawaiian offers in its HNL hub, with a straightforward inflight service, which caters to passengers who need consistency and dependability—not luxury. And lastly, we tackled the adventure of flying on a Caravan from KOA to JHM with Mokulele, an airline that offers a reliable service but for a niche. The vast majority may not find it comforting to fly from an outdoor terminal in a small aircraft.

Flying in Hawaii can be as fun and reliable as one wants it to be. Rest assured, between friendly crew, on time service, whales, Mai Tais, and the best scenery, it will be a rewarding and unforgettable experience.

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