TOKYO — All Nippon Airways (ANA) has become the last new operator of the Airbus A380, launching commercial operations with the double-decker plane exclusively on the Tokyo-Narita International Airport (NRT) to Honolulu (HNL) rotation.

The European planemaker decided to pull the plug on the production of the world’s largest passenger aircraft in 2021. With only about 65 firm orders left to fulfill, ANA became the last new customer to ever take delivery of a brand-new A380.

The Japanese carrier has focused to place this aircraft on the coveted Hawaii market, which is the most popular resort destination for Japanese travelers, year-round.

Airways was on board the inaugural flight from Honolulu to Tokyo-Narita.

Wisdom & Good Luck: How these planes came to be

ANA has traditionally been a Boeing customer and had very few Airbus birds (a total of 11) in its fleet. 

There is no question that the A380 was not originally part of ANA’s plans.  But, perhaps through the good fortune of Skymark’s demise and some of ANA’s own strategic thinking, ANA found itself with the opportunity to acquire three A380s as part of a bigger deal. 

Skymark was Japan’s third largest carrier.  It went heavily into debt – and ultimately into bankruptcy — by undertaking its A380 expansion.  When it became evident that Skymark couldn’t pay for its A380s, Airbus canceled Skymark’s contract.

ANA bid, along with other carriers (most notably Delta), to acquire Skymark’s license and its coveted 36 daily slot pairs at the Tokyo-Haneda airport. 

ANA did not originally seek the A380s as part of its bid, but somewhere along the line that position changed, and as a result, the carrier came out on top.     

With the three A380s in hand, ANA looked for a route that could support these beasts.  The Tokyo – Hawaii route was chosen and it will certainly be
interesting to see how ANA’s wisdom and good luck play out with the roll-out of expanded service on this route.

ANA’s Flying Honu livery is perfectly matched to the product

After placing its order for three A380s to service the route, ANA
conducted a naming contest, asking for submissions from the public. Over 2,000 submissions were received.  The end result of the contest was the birth of the Flying Honu brand.

Honu is the Hawaiian word for the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle, a reptilian survivor from the age of dinosaurs.

For Hawaiians, the Honu is a symbol of good luck in the form of a guardian spirit or Amakua.

The Honu pattern is depicted in ancient petroglyphs as well as in modern graphics form found on endless Hawaiian trinkets and souvenir T-shirts. For Hawaiians then and now, the Honu represents the navigator who shows the way to the Hawaiian Islands… just like ANA.

The livery features a large playful, smiling sea turtle, with two baby sea
turtles by its side. It’s a family-friendly signal for sure. 

Each plane will feature the same sea turtle livery but in a different color: blue for the sky, emerald green for the Hawaiian sea, and orange for the sunset.

There are touches of the Honu branding on the inside of the plane as well, with the little turtles appearing in the flight safety video, and a beautiful LED rainbow and a fairly convincing simulation of ocean water on the ceiling.

ANA celebrated the inaugural flight from Honolulu back to Tokyo with a small gift of a lovely towel set in three of the Honu colors, photo opportunities for passengers, and a small ceremony that included Hawaii’s Governor David Ige, First Lady Dawn Ige, and a number of ANA executives including Hiroshi Shibata general manager of ANA/Honolulu office and Shigeru Hattori, senior VP, The America’s General Manager.

Honolulu Airport: A Frustrating Endeavor

I have been traveling to Asia (and the rest of this planet) since I was in my early 20s. And, in all that time I have never been to Hawaii!

It’s just never been on my radar, maybe that very special Hawaiian Brady Bunch episode freaked me out when I was a kid.

The airport’s layout is one of the most counterintuitive and frustrating I’ve ever experienced. From the time I stepped out of the airport shuttle bus, to getting my first gin and tonic at the lounge, I had spent a solid hour and 15 minutes of stroke-inducing frustration.

The premium lines at the counter were fully staffed—and working quite hard, I must add—but in First and Business Class, we still had quite a long queue to get checked in.

Then, it’s off to the Gold Line, as HNL calls their premium passenger security line, but this area is quite small, and even when fully staffed, it still takes a good 30 minutes to get through because there are only two security kiosks.

The airline offers a shuttle after you get through security, and that journey isn’t much of a pleaser, too. This airport really needs to upgrade its facilities, but I have a suspicion that nobody else in Honolulu feels this way.

Now, on to the inaugural flight experience.

Welcome To The Lounge

Once you get to the lounge, you feel like you’re in a completely different airport. It is truly an oasis. It affords spectacular views of the airport in the city after the distance and more than enough room for an A380 load of passengers.

Given the general lack of higher-end facilities at HNL, it’s not entirely surprising that ANA chose to create an entire lounge dedicated only to this A380 service route.

The lounge is sunny, with a spacious feel and a delightful combination of Hawaiian and Japanese design cues. And, it looks out directly at the Honu A380 you are about to board. Quite special, indeed.

The lounge is for all premium passengers (First, Business and Premium Economy) who will be able to board the flight from there directly to the top deck of the A380.

Also, giving a nod to the route that will likely include a lot of vacationing families, there is a children’s play space in the main part of the lounge.

The Honu Experience Onboard The A380

The boarding process couldn’t have been smoother. Having a dedicated jetway for the upper deck is obviously a must for this aircraft.

Once on board, you find that the entry point of the aircraft is large and does not present the usual chokepoint that most wide-body aircraft do. It was a breeze to walk right on the aircraft and find my seat. In retrospect, it was the smoothest boarding process I’d ever experienced.

Later on, doors closed, we experienced a slight delay, which just meant that I had time for one more pre-departure drink. Apparently, a catering truck had an issue with its hydraulics to get up to the A380’s second level—a challenge that only this aircraft could present to an airport that had never seen regular A380 operations.

We pushed back at about 12:15 and took off at 12:35. Total time in the air, seven hours and thirty-three minutes.

Cabin Exploration

Once on board, passengers will find that ANA is looking to provide something unique to attract every type of traveler on this route—whether it is for a passenger on the top deck or lower deck.

The top deck focuses on the luxury and premium class.  Not surprisingly, the front of the top deck encompasses the First Class cabin.  Or more appropriately called First Class Suites. 

There are eight of these Suites, each including a privacy pod feature to up the luxury experience. Each Suite has a pitch of 78 inches and a width of 33 inches—exclusive to the carrier’s A380.

As you make your way back on the top deck, there 56 Business Class stations. At first glance, the seat (with a pitch of 62 inches and a width of 21 inches) seems austere.

Most of my experience with Safran SKYlounge seats has been very positive so far. But ANA’s mantra of keeping things simple, especially on the A380, the makes the cabin feel surprisingly subdued.

You won’t find any high-gloss walnut veneers in this plane. The seats had some other challenges. There really was no more functional storage than in most Premium Economy seats. I had to put reading materials back in my bag and up in the overhead bin.

Trying out the full-flat function was comfortable, but the fabric was a little scratchy, probably since these are brand-new seats. I presume a few months of service will buff that right out.

ANA’s latest update for their IFE is quite remarkable. It features a wide array of films and TV shows from all over the world. I kept looking at what other passengers were watching, and I was amazed at the variety of things on their screens.

Usually, if the IFE selection is poor, half the cabin is watching the same thing. They have done a great job by keeping up and exceeding what most travelers expect regarding in-flight entertainment.

There was very little lag in executing commands with a very handy touchpad remote provided in the seat, and it was something that became intuitive very quickly. It is the first time I’ve used a touchpad set up like this.

The system also offers some of the clearest outside views I’ve ever seen. The downward view was the highest definition exterior camera, and it was oddly compelling to watch Japanese farmland speeding past us.

Moving backward through to the Premium Economy cabin, 73 passenger seats are located at the rear of the top deck. The cabin is configured in a 2-3-2 layout, with a 38-inch pitch and 21-inch width.

The best feature of this section is the fact that it is located on the upper floor, and has a more exclusive feel, away from the massive Economy Class. 

Premium Economy passengers get Honu-inspired gadgets for their holiday experience, which can include items like a beach bag branded with ANA’s Honu theme.

From what I could see, the passengers in this cabin looked quite comfortable and benefited from their approximation to Business Class. ANA’s premium product represents fantastic value, especially on a Honu flight. It is great to see an airline create a cabin that will be so welcoming to families.

Down on the main deck is Economy Class, which has room for 383 passengers. Passengers are treated to a good 34-inch pitch between seats, as well as the less-than-standard 18 inches of width.

Certainly, the feature getting the most attention in this cabin is the COUCHii seats, located by the rear-end of the Economy Class. The row can be turned into a sleeping bed, complete with a dedicated bed sheet, pillow and blanket set.

There is also a private restroom-like facility (but without a toilet), called a “multi-purpose room” that is available for nursing or changing diapers. Having changed my son’s diaper in a 2×2 ft box on a CRJ-900, I can’t tell you how life-changing this “multi-purpose room” will be for traveling parents. Superb idea by ANA.

Kiddos departing from Japan will receive specialty-branded silverware, an ANA original bag, and inflatable FLYING HONU A380 toy.

Merch like the diecast of ANA’s A380 and a stuffed Honu doll named Lani are available for purchase on the flight… (can you say, future diecast enthusiasts in the making?).

Each seat features the customary power port, a footrest, and a 13.3-inch IFE screen.

In-Flight Service

When it came time for the one and only meal service, I was surprised to see hot carts being used to serve the Business Class cabin.

The overall presentation was pleasant, but it came up a little short of usual ANA standards.

The usual pre-meal beverage service began, with a smiling Flight Attendant coming down the aisle with wine choices. It was very pleasing to see them delivering service with such a keen attitude—something that’s very common with ANA.

Up next, very nice and tasty hors d’oeuvres arrived. All very colorful and neatly presented.

But once the main course arrived, I must say that the overall feeling of exclusivity takes a hit when the trays are being composed right next to you, with plastic and aluminum foil being unwrapped and plated.

My guess is that this is all done to dispatch with the first meal as quickly as possible, but at the end of the day, this goal was not achieved.

However, the overall presentation of the dish was good. The grilled butterfish and miso paste was a bit oily and not seasoned properly. The side dishes served with the Asian meal was composed of roast beef and an asparagus tip.

The Okinawan spinach in Yuba bean curd was quite good, and the sea bream and burdock root roll, prawn and celery were refreshing.

The meal service wasn’t completed until three hours into the flight—perhaps pushing it a little too far for normal standards. But again, this is an inaugural flight, so it was completely understandable they took longer than expected.

Later on, there was no separate lunch service, just a selection of snacks that passengers are free to order at any time during the flight.

The in-flight snack that I was served was a sandwich set composed of smoked chicken and cheddar cheese, wrapped in aluminum foil. It was hot on the edges and cold in the middle. It took me a couple of bites to realize that I was not going to be able to discern whether or not this chicken was cooked or raw, so I stopped myself from going any further.

Despite these inaugural flight flaws, the Flight Attendants executed a high-quality service under very challenging circumstances. This was a completely full flight, and they had only had two days to train on this new aircraft type.

The purser explained to me how there is still a bit of a learning curve to master this plane’s service profile. Throughout the flight, the Flight Attendants were truly warm, accommodating and friendly.

It’s important to highlight that this is an enormous premium cabin, and the Flight Attendants were always working hard without seeming to have any downtime.

One of the elements I noticed is that, to further enhance their ability to provide better customer service on this enormous beast, ANA is launching with its A380s new technology for its flight attendants to communicate with each other.

The device, called Bonx Grip, is a hands-free group talk product that looks like a cellphone earpiece. It connects to a smart app that allows attendants to speak at a normal volume to their colleagues in other parts of the plane, just like they were standing around the same drink cart.

It looked as though the crew was benefiting greatly from this device. I can’t imagine what would’ve been like without it. Frankly, I think 20 crew may not be enough (even with the Bonx Grip).

Overall, it was easy to notice how happy the passengers were and how well they interacted with the crew. Lots and lots of smiles were evident throughout the A380’s cabins.

Opportunities for Concept Expansion

ANA is looking for a big short-term boost to customer numbers by deploying the three A380s. 

According to ANA’s president, Sinya Katanozaka, ANA believes “the A380 will become a game changer and will enable [ANA] to increase [its] market share by doubling the number of seats connecting Honolulu and Tokyo by 2020.” 

ANA is looking to increase its market share for the route from 15% to 25% by using the A380s.

ANAs first double-decker, the Blue Honu, will fly the Tokyo-Honolulu route every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday.  Once the second Honu bird launches in July, ANA will have a daily flight on to Hawaii on this type of plane. The third ANA A380 isn’t expected to launch until sometime in 2020.

The flight was not only a first for ANA but a first for myself. In all these years I had never gotten around to flying on an A380—I have to say I was truly impressed.

You do get a sense for how massive this aircraft is, and it comes off like a big friendly whale.

I had checked turbulence tracker for the segment and found that there were spots of light and moderate turbulence forecasted for the route, but the A380 seemed to plow right through it. The entire flight was smooth as silk.

The A380 has a new fan. It seems as though ANA has taken what other carriers have learned about this aircraft, and has truly made something unique and fun.

I really believe this is going to be a huge success for ANA.

Disclaimer: Airways was invited by All Nippon Airways to cover this exclusive, inaugural flight. The review and opinions from the author remain his own.