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It’s not as exciting as the A330s with lie-flat seats, but for the length of a transcon, this first-class cabin will do quite nicely. Pros: comfortable seat, plenty of food, strong drinks. Cons: small tablet, no real breakfast choice, drinks possibly too strong?
There’s something about flying Hawaiian Airlines to the islands that just feels right. Even if the days of getting leis upon landing are behind us, the Honolulu-based carrier has a reputation for bringing Hawaiian hospitality on board its flights from the mainland to the islands. That’s what I experienced when I flew from Portland, Oregon, to Maui, Hawaii, in first class on the airline’s Airbus A321neo.
Hawaiian took delivery of its new A321neo aircraft, to replace an aging fleet of Boeing 767s for flights from the West Coast to Hawaii, in late 2017, and began flying them on a just-launched Portland (PDX)-Maui (OGG) route in January 2018. The A321neo isn’t the airline’s top-of-the-line bird in terms on onboard features like lie-flat seats in first class — that distinction goes to the A330, which flies longer routes like New York to Honolulu and, starting in 2019, the new longest domestic route of Boston to Honolulu. The A321neo is a still an upgrade for these shorter routes, though, with USB ports at every seats, mood lighting and an all-around more modern feel.
There are many ways to make it to the islands using points and miles, but in this particular case, we went with a cash fare. My paid Hawaiian itinerary cost $837 and included one segment in first class and one in economy. One-way, first-class flights on this route hover at about $568 most dates.
If you’d prefer to go the redemption route, you can transfer Amex Membership Rewards points to the HawaiianMiles program at a 1:1 ratio — in our test, the transfer went through instantly. A one-way, first-class award flight from North America to Hawaii costs 40,000 miles at the saver level, so you could use the welcome bonus from the Platinum Card® from American Express (60,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months) to book this flight. But just note that saver-level availability for first-class seats can be hard to find; Hawaiian asks for 80,000 miles one-way for much of November 2018, for example.
I chose to credit this flight to JetBlue, which Hawaiian Airlines has a partnership with. TPG values JetBlue miles slightly higher than Hawaiian miles (1.3 cents vs. 1.2 cents apiece), and I fly JetBlue home to San Diego all the time. I don’t anticipate using miles to fly Hawaiian Airlines, so I didn’t want to end up with orphan miles in my Hawaiian Airlines account. I called Hawaiian to add my JetBlue TrueBlue number to the reservation in order to earn points, and the representative confirmed I would earn 100% of my flight miles.
I didn’t bother with a physical boarding pass on this trip, though this was an option, as Hawaiian naturally has service counters at Portland Airport. But let me use this opportunity to rant about the Hawaiian Airlines app, which in practice is more like a stripped-down mobile website that refuses to keep you logged in.
Thank goodness for the Apple Wallet app on my iPhone, where I stored my mobile boarding pass — if I hadn’t been able to keep my Hawaiian Airlines ticket there, I would have had to repeatedly enter my confirmation number and last name on the app to bring up my reservation on my phone, as the app didn’t remember my reservation.
I flew out of Portland Airport Concourse D, home to one of the Priority Pass lounge network’s participating restaurants. I could have presented my Priority Pass membership to get $28 for myself (as well as for any guests) at Capers Market. I was saving my appetite for the first-class meal service on board, though, and didn’t exactly build in tons of wait time at the airport for this flight departing at 8am.
The boarding crew at our gate was friendly. Of course, I was also one of the first to step on the plane as a first-class passenger, but I found the announcements to be well-communicated, and the boarding process seemed to progress smoothly.
Shortly after boarding, flight attendants offered first-class passengers a pre-departure drink. Naturally, I chose a mai tai.
Cabin and Seat
Hawaiian Airlines’ first-class cabin on the A321neo consisted of 16 recliner seats in a 2-2 configuration.
This was a single-aisle plane, compared to the Boeing 767 and its two aisles. This could certainly slow down boarding, but an upside to this was a smaller, more exclusive premium cabin (the 767 had 18 seats). Though, having less seats up front could make it harder to find award availability in first on this route.
These were recliner seats rather than lie-flats, which was disappointing in the context of knowing that Hawaiian does offer lie-flats on longer jaunts (and the LAX-HNL route) served by its A330, but pretty acceptable when you consider that this flight was both during the day and only about the length of a transcon.
There was more than enough legroom — according to the Hawaiian Airlines site, the premium-cabin seats have 39 inches of pitch.
The passenger in front of me reclined his seat all the way, and I still had plenty of space to stretch out.
I barely reclined my seat during this flight myself.
First-class seats also came with footrests, which I didn’t use at all, since my backpack got in the way. It wasn’t a big issue for me, though.
Each first-class seat came stocked with a pillow and a blanket. The pillow was pretty standard (read: tiny, unnaturally light, unimpressive), but the fleecy blanket actually had heft to it and ended up keeping me more than warm enough.
There was also a menu, outlining our breakfast, onboard entertainment and beverage options.
Hawaiian Airlines chose to pass on seatback entertainment completely on the A321neo, which I honestly wasn’t thrilled about (even though I knew what to expect).
Yes, a tablet was provided for each first-class passenger and could be tucked in the seatback pocket for hands-free watching, but it was on the small side.
There was one first-class lavatory at the front of the cabin. There was a bit of a wait at times since it was just one bathroom for 16 passengers, but it was never more than 5 or 10 minutes, and the facilities were kept clean.
Food and Beverage
As this flight left at 8 in the morning, we were in for breakfast. Some passengers may balk at the fact that there was only one option, but I actually found it to be pretty solid, both quality- and size-wise.
After takeoff, flight attendants came around for beverage service and gave first-class passengers a plate of Mauna Loa macadamia nuts.
The main course was a potato-crust quiche with zucchini, sweet corn and cheese with Portuguese-style sausage. The first course of fresh fruit and a croissant with butter and jam was listed separately on the menu but served on the same tray as the quiche. Flight attendants also came around with ketchup packets (definitely a thing you’ll notice in Hawaii as well).
It felt like a good amount of food — especially since the quiche was generously sized. The quiche was a little bland, so I took advantage of the salt and pepper shakers on the tray. As a vegetarian not knowing the menu going in, I was unsure how much I’d actually be able to eat on this flight, but I could eat everything except the sausage, and that was plenty.
Dessert was a coconut cheesecake. I was pretty stuffed by this point but I had a bite, and it was pretty good!
Flight attendants kept the mai tais coming in the air. They were strong, not that that’s a bad thing. I had one before takeoff and one with breakfast, and about three hours into the flight I was feeling … affected. When the flight attendants came around with rum punch about an hour before landing, I was annoyingly adult and declined.
An hour or so before landing, flight attendants passed around a snacks: Maui onion potato chips, snack mix and a cookie from Honolulu Cookie Company.
I really enjoyed this flight to Maui. The roomy seat and the potent mai tais certainly helped, but I was also just really impressed by how friendly the service was. The flight attendants working the first-class cabin were attentive, constantly refilling our water and checking in to see if there was anything we needed. They even filled out the Hawaiian agricultural declaration form with my name and flight number — maybe that’s more standard than I think, but I’ve certainly never had that courtesy on previous trips to Hawaii.
The A321neo was a comfortable ride made all the better by great service. For jaunts to the islands from the West Coast, it’s a great option. As an East Coaster, I can’t wait to try out Hawaiian’s long-haul from Boston to Honolulu on its A330. That flight will offer lie-flat seats in first class when it launches in April 2019, making for an even more comfortable journey. For West Coasters and those willing to connect or stop over on the West Coast before making it to paradise, though, first class on the A321neo is a solid option.
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