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Hawaiian Airlines offers a solid economy experience on a very long domestic US flight. The pros: nonstop convenience, new and modern interiors and great service. The cons: disappointing dinner entree and a hectic airport experience at HNL.
There’s no shortage of ways to get to Hawaii if you live on the West Coast of the United States. Things are a little different if you’re an East Coaster, though — you can get to the islands with just one connection from pretty much anywhere, but since it’s such a long trip from the East, it’s especially convenient to be able to hop on a nonstop flight. However, the nonstop options from the New York area aren’t extensive — United offers daily Boeing 767 service from Newark (EWR) to Honolulu (HNL) and Hawaiian Airlines flies an Airbus A330 once a day between New York’s Kennedy Airport (JFK) and its HNL hub. Delta has offered nonstop HNL flights from JFK in the past, but they were operated only on a seasonal basis and currently aren’t loaded in the schedule for any time this year.
After a recent trip to Hawaii, I wanted to get back home as quickly as possible (read: nonstop flights only), so my options were quickly narrowed down to either Hawaiian or United. Both flights depart Honolulu at similar times and thus arrive in the NYC area at similar times as well. Also, on paper, both airlines would provide a similar experience in coach, since they feature 2-4-2 (Hawaiian’s A330) and 2-3-2 (United’s 767) seating arrangements. The prices were similar, too — both tickets sold for a little under $400 one-way.
Despite most things about my two options being more or less equal, the decision was easy for me — I seldom fly United, and I’d already had a great experience with Hawaiian when I flew its A330 in first class in early 2017. I knew my coach flight would be vastly different from my flight up front, but I was eager to see if Hawaiian could translate some of the best aspects of its first-class product to the economy experience. Plus, the flight between HNL and JFK has the distinction of being the longest domestic flight around — a perfectly AvGeek-y cherry on top.
Booking was about as straightforward as it can get for this flight, since I was paying cash. I found the flight I wanted on Google Flights and clicked through to complete booking directly with Hawaiian. I put the $379 ticket on my Platinum Card from American Express since it awards 5x points per dollar spent on airfare purchased directly with the airline or through Amex Travel. I earned a total of 1,895 Membership Rewards for this purchase — worth about $36 based on TPG’s latest valuations.
If you’re looking to use miles to book this flight, your options are fairly limited — Hawaiian charges a minimum of 20,000 HawaiianMiles for one-way flights between HNL and North America. However, you’re unlikely to find awards at the “SuperSaver” level, and you’ll probably have to shell out up to 60,000 miles for the one-way flight, which is frankly an astronomical amount of miles for a flight that sells consistently for under $400 in cash. If you’re able to find low-level availability, though, you have plenty of options to top off your HawaiianMiles account, as the program is transfer partners with both American Express and Starwood Preferred Guest — both currencies transfer at a 1:1 ratio.
As the reality of my almost-10-hour redeye economy flight sunk in, I began looking up how much it’d cost to upgrade to Hawaiian’s Extra Comfort seat, which is basically the same thing as regular old economy but with extra legroom, access to more complimentary entertainment options and priority boarding. At first, I was shocked to see that the cost to upgrade was $145, but considering the length of the flight, it seemed more than worth it. I paid for it with my Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card, which offers a $300 annual travel credit, so it was wiped off my statement. Perhaps I had some initial sticker shock because I’m used to selecting Delta Comfort+ seats for free at booking since I’m a Platinum Medallion. Flying as a non-elite is hard!
Airport and Check-in
I arrived at HNL with plenty of time before departure, since I’ve found the airport to be pretty much always busy. Hawaiian has a somewhat unique check-in process — instead of a long wall with several check-in desks with agents behind them, it has a few large “carousels” of check-in kiosks.
The whole thing is quite automated — you weigh and tag the bags yourself and agents come around to your kiosk if you need help. Then, you take your bags to the dropoff location, where they’re sent on their merry way.
If you have any issues with your ticket, there are customer service agents located in the check-in hall, but it looked like there were several people waiting in line while I was there. I have a feeling it’s usually that busy … or even more so.
The TSA PreCheck line at HNL has been long every time I’ve traveled through the airport, and this time was no different. It took about 20 minutes to reach the front of the line, and then I was on my way to the gate.
If you’re not flying in a premium cabin, there are two Priority Pass options at HNL, though neither was of interest to me, as I didn’t have a ton of time to kill before my flight. I grabbed a Whopper Jr. from Burger King and waited at the gate instead.
Cabin and Seat
The economy cabin has a total of 260 seats arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration, standard for the A330. Each of the 192 regular economy seats is 18 inches wide and offers 31 inches of pitch, while each of the 68 Extra Comfort seats is also 18 inches wide but sports a generous 36 inches of pitch.
There are a lot of Extra Comfort seats on this plane — and many of them are on either side of the aircraft where there are just two seats, because the airline found that people are more willing to pay (myself included) for window or aisle seats with just one other person next to them. I think it’s a smart strategy to offer so many Extra Comfort seats at a significant upcharge. Since some of Hawaiian’s flights are very long, many passengers will be persuaded to buy the upgrade.
The seats themselves are modern looking and sport a bright, vacation-y color scheme — certainly a cheery way to start (or end) a Hawaiian vacation.
Perhaps the best part of the Extra Comfort seats is the mini-cabin just behind First Class. There are only two total rows in the cabin, and it’s very private, especially if you’re able to snag a seat on either side of the aircraft.
Since I got priority boarding with my Extra Comfort ticket, I made my way to my seat while the cabin was still very empty. The more I fly, the more I appreciate early boarding because 1) there’s still space in the overhead bins and 2) you’re not rushed by those behind you to toss your bag up above and sit down immediately upon seeing your seat. At my seat — 15J — there were both a small pillow and a fleece blanket waiting for me.
I do enjoy flying the A330 in economy, because the seats are a bit wider than what’s becoming the norm on Boeing 777s. However, I really wish airlines would allow the arm rest adjacent to the window to be raised — it would make a huge difference in terms of comfort.
Food and Beverage
Hawaiian serves two full meals to economy passengers on its flights between HNL and JFK — something that the other US carriers have recently begun doing once again after several years of not offering any hot meals on Hawaii flights. This flight departs Honolulu around 4:15pm, so dinner is served on the earlier side, but regardless it’s very nice to get a hot meal — especially since these flights are considerably longer than most hops between the East Coast and Europe.
Cabin service started right after we hit cruising altitude, and began with a (very little) snack and beverages. The snack mix was completely standard, but the passion fruit/orange/guava (POG) juice was fantastic!
Shortly after the snack came the main event. I had fairly high expectations since the food on my first-class flight with Hawaiian was so delicious. I was quickly brought back to reality, though, once I received my entree of teriyaki chicken — it was disappointingly bland despite looking like it’d taste pretty good.
The meal was served with a hilariously small salad as well as a tasty chocolate brownie for dessert. The red wine was complimentary and was a typical coach-class (read: not great) offering, but it helped make me sleepy, so I’d consider that a win.
Flight attendants turned on the cabin lights with about 90 minutes of flying to go in order to serve breakfast. While I usually prefer a hot breakfast with some sort of egg situation, I enjoyed my meal of fresh, tasty fruit and cheese and crackers. Plus, I got more POG juice!
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
The list of amenities in economy class is never exhaustive, and Hawaiian’s no different. However, I did appreciate the fact that this aircraft has a thoroughly modern IFE system with crisp seat-back IFE monitors. Plus, having the USB port in the seat back is also a huge perk in my book.
The entertainment onboard was a mixed bag for me — there was plenty to choose from, but most of it was behind a paywall. I’m a bit confused since entertainment was supposed to be free with my Extra Comfort seat, but it didn’t end up being a huge deal since my main priority was to sleep. However, if you’re considering flying this product, be aware that some of the entertainment options (usually the best/newest movies) aren’t free.
I settled on watching a few episodes of Hawaii Five-O before I fell asleep, because they were free, and because, well, Hawaii.
The pillow on each seat was just like any other economy-class pillow you’d encounter, but I do have good things to say about the blanket. It was much thicker and actually felt like a real blanket — a real advantage over some of the paper-thin impostor blankets you’ll find on other US airlines.
Service throughout the flight was genuinely friendly and efficient. All flight attendants I interacted with seemed proud to work for Hawaiian and were eager to help. Wi-Fi wasn’t offered on this flight, which wasn’t a big deal to me since it was a redeye. However, it could be a problem for those who want to stay connected while in the air, especially considering how long this particular flight is.
You’re not going to be wowed by Hawaiian’s coach experience by any means, but it’s not a bad way to fly if you’re going to be flying the longest domestic route around in the back of the plane. The convenience of a nonstop flight can’t be beat, and the service was great too. If prices continue to be this low and Delta remains absent on the route, I won’t hesitate to fly Hawaiian back to the East Coast again — especially when time is of the essence.
All photos by the author.
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