America’s Longest Red-Eye: Hawaiian Airlines’ A330 in Economy From Honolulu to Boston
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Great service in economy, above-average food, decent IFE selection and a (leisure-heavy) domestic flight that's treated like an international one.
Limited food options at HNL, tight seat pitch, rough departure/arrival time.
Official application link: Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard with a 60,000-mile sign-up bonus.
After an incredible — albeit short — trip to Hawaii that began by flying on what’s now the longest domestic flight in all of the US, it was time to come home. Unlike my trip out to the islands, I was returning to the mainland in economy. Far from my first red-eye in economy, I was looking forward to seeing how Hawaiian’s long-haul service stacked up to its competitors on this flight between Honolulu and Boston.
The trip back to Boston (BOS) from Honolulu (HNL) was the return leg of the round-trip that we booked, with the first leg in first class.
Though you can redeem your points and miles for Hawaiian Airlines flights, the airline just switched to a dynamic award chart (read this post for all you need to know), meaning there’s now no way to predict exactly how many miles you’re going to need to shell out for a ticket — under the new pricing scheme, economy tickets can cost anywhere from 30,000 to a whopping 130,000 miles — yes, for coach. Even though Hawaiian gutted its award charts, you can still redeem Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles for travel on Hawaiian. Flights to Boston are priced at 40,000 and 65,000 miles one-way in coach and first class, respectively.
With the continued devaluation of many airlines’ miles, it could be smarter to take advantage of the low fares we’ve been seeing from the US mainland to Hawaii — for much of the rest of the year, round-trip nonstop tickets in Hawaiian economy are selling for about $650, not bad considering these flights are significantly longer than most flights between Boston and Western Europe.
When booking paid fares, be sure to use credit cards that either reward you handsomely with a generous bonus category, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express, which awards five points per dollar spent on airfare booked directly through the airline or through Amex Travel, or offer solid travel protection features that can be a big help in case things don’t go according to plan, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Plus, the CSR offers three points per dollar on all travel and dining expenses.
It was a typical sunny day in Honolulu, and Hawaiian 90 was scheduled to depart on time when I left for the airport. I arrived at HNL’s Terminal 1 at 12:15 pm for a 1:55pm flight with boarding scheduled for 1:10pm. I arrived especially early because the HNL security scene is notoriously busy. Even with TSA PreCheck, I anticipated a security wait of at least 20 minutes.
Right where I was dropped, there were signs denoting exactly where to enter the terminal and pointing you where to go based on if you had an international, inter-island or domestic mainland flight.
I had checked in online the night prior and didn’t have any checked bags with me, but Hawaiian had self-service kiosks with agents there to assist customers checking in.
The security line was long but not as bad as I expected, and, with TSA PreCheck, I was clear within 10 minutes.
The flight was departing from Gate C5, a bit of a walk from the central security checkpoint, though HNL’s awesome outdoor walkways made the 15-minute journey pleasant.
Flights to the mainland require passing through an additional agricultural inspection, which consists of an X-ray bag scanner. It was easy, and I was clear of the checkpoint in under one minute.
Based on my walk to the gate, Honolulu airport didn’t offer a very wide selection of eating establishments. Aside from a couple of small shops, the majority of eateries looked to be near the central security checkpoint. Perhaps it’d be different in the international section of the terminal, but by the time I got to C5 — the area where most of Hawaiian’s wide-body fleet departs from — I spotted a single restaurant nearby (from where I bought a sandwich to go), plus a small souvenir shop. Consider picking up food prior to the airport or closer to security during peak times.
Lack of eating options aside, the gate area was pleasant. While a few gates were packed, the Boston-bound gate was relatively spacious. I even found a seat — although struggled to find an available outlet. I knew I’d have one on the flight, however. And there I sat, watching planes land on one of HNL’s runways.
Right on time, boarding began at 1:10pm. I waited patiently for them to call Group 4, which happened no more than 10 minutes after the initial boarding call began. Once aboard, the crew informed us that we’d be flying fast this evening, cutting the flight time down by nearly 50 minutes, pushing up expected arrival to just shy of 5am local time in Boston.
Cabin and Seat
Hawaiian’s A330-200 is the airline’s long-haul workhorse, and takes the airline to destinations across the Pacific and North America, from New York-JFK to Auckland (AKL), Tokyo (NRT) to Papeete (PPT). As with most other operators with the wide-body, Hawaiian’s economy cabin is in a 2-4-2 configuration.
The 192 economy seats are upholstered in blue cloth and leather. There’s just a couple of rows of of “Extra Comfort” seats that offer 36 inches of pitch. Lastly, there are three rows of first class aboard these jets, configured 2-2-2. Each of those 18 first-class seats goes lie-flat.
Compared to other long-haul airplanes like the Boeing 777, 787 or Airbus A380, the 2-4-2 seating arrangement means that, if you’re a window flyer like me, you’ll only have to climb over one person on the way to the bathroom instead of two. And if you’re really lucky, you won’t have a seatmate at all.
The cabin on my flight was clean. I had 37J, a window seat in the aft cabin. Weirdly, it seemed that the bottom cushion was just slightly forward of the others. It was stocked with a small pillow and light blanket. All seats in economy had a high-definition seatback screen (which wasn’t available to use until after takeoff), and a USB charging port.
With a backpack under the seat in front, legroom felt normal, if a bit tight, for a long-haul cabin (and for the keen-eyed readers: Yes, that is a safety card for an A321neo).
Pitch definitely felt tight. Recline was relatively substantial, and this was probably because the bottom cushion slid out in lieu of actual seat recline. I’d wager my seat was a little bit broken, which is why it was already out slightly and felt particularly short on pitch. During the flight, the seat felt to be on the thin and worn out side, and when it came time to sleep, it was uncomfortable. Sure, it’s never particularly easy to get comfortable trying to sleep in an economy cabin, but with the limited pitch, it felt as if I had very little space.
The cushioned headrest cushion moved too, which is always welcome in economy
The tray table was fine, if a bit smaller than other carriers’ tables (at least among those that aren’t low-cost carriers). It slid forward and back, but I’d have had to have had a pretty small laptop to work comfortably, especially if the passenger in front of me reclined. With my 13-inch MacBook Pro, there was room, but not much. With no Wi-Fi on this flight, working wasn’t a possibility, anyway — not that I really minded.
Once the boarding door closed, the cabin crew activated the atmospheric mood lighting in our cabin. They continued to use it throughout the flight until they shut it off entirely for the sleeping portion of the flight. Notably, the crew didn’t use the lights to serve us breakfast prior to our arrival in Boston. Instead, they used the regular white lights, which were considerably less pleasant. They also asked that we close our windows barely 15 minutes after takeoff, though I waited a bit longer and they didn’t seem to mind.
Lastly, about halfway through the flight, the cabin became pretty cold. Compared to the warm first-class cabin on the flight out a few days prior, this was surprising. Nevertheless, with a blanket and change of pants (If you can, always have a spare set of pants or sweats on a red-eye — it makes a huge difference!), I was fine.
Amenities and IFE
Upon arriving at Seat 37J, I noticed the standard collection of items at the seat: a small pillow and lightweight blanket, each wrapped in plastic.
Every seat was stocked with a personal HD IFE screen with complimentary content (compare that to most of Hawaiian’s domestic flights, where you have to pay for entertainment), USB charging port and audio headphone jack. Until the entertainment system was activated and fully functional a minute or two after takeoff, the screens displayed a welcome image with a language selector.
Once we were on our way to Boston, the system came alive.
The screen was clear and the system mostly intuitive, with more features than the somewhat-clunky iPad set up in first class. The screen itself reminded me of what several airlines, like Delta’s retrofitted 767s, have installed on their fleets, with a high-definition, immovable screen (read: no tilt for when passengers recline) and motion-activated lights for the USB and headphone port.
I counted around 50 movies, an assortment of TV shows, music, Hawaii-specific information and programming and maybe 10 different games, including miniature golf, poker, 2048 and others.
The movies included classics like “A Star Is Born” (the 1954 Judy Garland one and the new one), “I, Robot,” “The Avengers,” “Thor,” “Logan,” “Avatar,” “The Notebook” and some newer releases. Surprisingly, there were more choices on this built-in economy display than in first class. Perks of coach!
TV shows included popular ones like “Black-ish,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Modern Family,” “Chopped” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” It was hard to tell if there were complete seasons or just a bunch of episodes, but there was enough to keep me entertained for the duration of the flight. Once again, more content here than in first, which felt like a small victory, considering I’d be a lot less comfortable than the folks in front.
I liked how the flight progress was always available on the bottom of the screen. It disappeared while watching but reappeared upon pausing. My only complaint — a small one at that — was that if you left what you were watching to check the map (or anything else on the IFE), the system wouldn’t save your place in playback. Not a huge deal, but good to know going in. As for the settings, I could control volume, brightness, lights, crew call and language via a pop-up screen accessible at any time.
There was a standard moving map, which rotated views but didn’t offer any customization.
The cabin crew never formally offered headphones, but they would happily sell you a pair of earbuds for $4 (credit card only).
Upon boarding, I found a blue pillow and a blanket at every seat. At first, the pillow seemed a regular economy pillow, but later in the flight it seemed worse than that. The blanket was as thin as you’d expect it to be, but it had a fun blue edging that set it apart from the typical thin, scratchy blankets you get on other carriers.
The IFE screens were turned off 15 minutes before landing.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Red-eyes in economy are hardly fun, but Hawaiian stands out on these long-haul domestic flights by offering two complimentary meals in economy, a far cry from the competition. Indeed, Hawaiian treats this service more or less like an international flight, something that other US airlines, like Delta, United and American, only do on key transcontinental flights. Sadly, the (nearly doubly far) flights between the East Coast and the Hawaiian islands aren’t business-heavy routes and often lack any resemblance of service besides buy-aboard food.
We took off right on time, and about 15 minutes later, the cabin crew announced there’d be a light snack followed by drink service. But before any free service, they came through with a menu of snacks available for purchase. The free meal was coming out in about a half hour, so I passed.
Forty-five minutes into the flight, we got our drinks and crackers. I asked for a sparkling water. When given a cup, I asked for the can (I saw others getting cans), but the FA said they didn’t have a lot so she couldn’t give to me until she knew everyone in economy had what they needed. If she had an extra, she told me, she’d bring it back. I was skeptical, but sure enough, 10 minutes later she returned with a can!
About 40 minutes later, about an hour and a half after takeoff, they announced that meal service would be soon. Everyone 21 and up would get a complimentary glass of red or white wine — but during this meal service only. Still, definitely a nice touch.
Some 10 minutes later, the meal came through: coleslaw, teriyaki chicken with rice, steamed carrots and string beans and a lemon cookie and cup of water. (There was no second option.) The salad was a bit tart and not particularly good, but the chicken and rice were delicious, as was the cookie. I’d imagine Hawaiian’s best catering is on flights that depart its base in HNL.
A little while later, the cabin crew announced that, for the lights out, there’d be two walk-up bars with snacks and drinks. That said, when I went up, I received a confused look. The walk-up bar seemed more like “ask the flight attendant for something in one of the galleys.”
Some 90 minutes before landing (at this point, around 3:30am Eastern time) the cabin lights came on in preparation for the next service. At this point, I was thankful that we were still 50 minutes ahead of schedule, but had realized the flight was terribly timed.
Here’s what I mean: A 2pm departure from HNL, a 3:30am wake-up for breakfast and a 5am arrival into Boston meant that sleeping was tough if you’d adjusted to island time (we’d be landing around 11pm Hawaii time). We were in Boston well before dawn. Things wouldn’t be much better if the flight had landed at the scheduled 5:50am. I’m sure Boston’s available landing slots made Hawaiian’s decision for them, but I’d rather have flown the 3:10pm flight to JFK, which lands closer to 7am.
The light snack service came with coffee, tea or juice. I asked for tea. Passengers were also given a hot towel, not exactly standard for long-haul economy, even on international flights. The crew distributed the snack box to passengers, and it was impressively thorough and exactly what I wanted, given it wasn’t even 4am on the East Coast: two kinds of crackers, cheese, chocolates, yogurt and a fruit cup (which looked canned). I also got a cup of apple juice. The items were tasty.
Passengers could also buy food once again, though this service ended 45 minutes prior to landing. Soon after finishing the snacks, the cabin crew collected the boxes, and shortly thereafter we were descending into a cloudy Boston, arriving at the gate by 5:10am Eastern time.
Service on Hawaiian Airlines stands out, and goes above and beyond what you typically experience on other US carriers.
Throughout the flight, I noticed that the FAs paid attention to passengers and went the extra mile when plenty of other airlines don’t, doing small but notable things like the flight attendant remembering that I asked for a full can of soda (and actually giving me one). During the long sleeping portion of the flight, FAs came through several times with cups of water. The crew handled passengers’ IFE troubles and questions about buy-aboard menu items, and made small talk with solo parents with babies. Indeed, the crew was friendly and attentive, and the service offered gives Hawaiian a strong leg up over the other players in the Hawaii-to-East Coast market.
My second flight on Hawaiian, as with many long-haul red-eyes in economy, was sort of a mixed bag, though I did leave with a positive impression overall. This flight adds another excellent nonstop option to both Hawaiian and Boston Logan’s networks, and Hawaiian gloriously treats the flight like an international long-haul. The IFE offers a decent selection of content, though the seat pitch definitely felt tight. But this is a domestic flight on a leisure-heavy route, after all. And that’s really the point here — Hawaiian doesn’t treat it like the competitors do: It offers real, complimentary meals and top-notch service — even free drinks! And though the airline’s five-plus-hour flights to the West Coast have more limited for-purchase IFE, this service offers all its content complimentary, as it should be on a flight of this duration.
Hawaiian’s focus on service and food delivers to a high degree, and they’re making a point of emphasizing this to stand out among the competition. And it’s working. I’d recommend the island carrier and its “Aloha spirit” to anyone who has the chance to fly it.
To listen to an interview with Brian Kelly talking to the CEO of Hawaiian Airlines listen here:
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