American First Class To Hawaii

Filed Under: American


I flew American first class from Los Angeles to Honolulu yesterday, and wanted to share a few observations.


The mainland to Hawaii market fascinates me

I first wanted to just briefly talk about the lower 48 to Hawaii market. I find it to be one of the most fascinating airline markets in the world. It’s theoretically a high yield leisure market, while it’s a low yield business market. Alex wrote about this a while ago, with his post entitled “Why Aren’t There Nicer Seats To Hawaii?”

It’s high yield among leisure travelers in economy because from the west coast, Hawaii is the same distance as the east coast, and in general economy fares are going to be higher. That being said, from the east coast Hawaii is further than Europe, yet fares are consistently lower, especially in premium cabins (even when flat bed products are offered).


It’s also interesting to see the fundamental shift to how airlines serve Hawaii. Going back a bit over a decade, service to Hawaii was almost exclusively operated by widebodies, while nowadays you have more 737s than any other aircraft flying between the mainland and Hawaii. Then again, I guess that describes much of the domestic US aviation market…

Historically service on flights to Hawaii has always been “special.” That’s kind of interesting, since presumably it’s not because the yields reflect it — this isn’t New York to Los Angeles or New York to London. So why have airlines historically offered “special” service? Presumably because it’s not that costly, and it creates a special atmosphere for what most would consider a memorable vacation destination.

I guess to some degree premium service on flights to Hawaii is almost an extension of loyalty programs. If you redeem your miles to Hawaii or upgrade what turns out to be a memorable trip, you’ll be more loyal to that airline. In theory. At least that’s the only logic I can think of.

My flight in American’s first class to Hawaii

That brings me to my flight yesterday on American from Los Angeles to Honolulu.

The flight was operated by a domestic 757 featuring 24 first class seats.

In terms of the meal service, I guess it was mostly the same as American’s new transcon meal service, which is a far cry from what American used to offer.

They did have special Hawaiian mixed nuts.


The meal was served on one tray, with an appetizer (which looked to me like a salad of some sort), a salad, and a main course (choice between mushroom ravioli and chicken). The only thing about the meal that was Hawaii-themed was the Hawaiian roll. There were no menus.



Then for dessert they had the usual ice cream sundae, though they had pistachios and mango toppings as well, which presumably are intended to be island-themed.


As far as the crew goes… well, if the crew showed any less interest in what they were doing they would have been Kristen Stewart. Oddly the captain provided the best customer service, and I never even saw him. Before takeoff he announced “take a look at that safety card. On my last flight someone found $5 in it. Now, I can’t guarantee you will as well, but if you never check it’ll drive you nuts. Trust me.”

For what it’s worth, economy was way oversold, so there were 14 operational upgrades to first class. Suffice to say most first class passengers were blown away by the service. One was on the phone during boarding explaining he was given a new boarding pass for a first class seat and said “you won’t believe this, they have a pillow and blanket.”

Bottom line

Hawaii flights sure aren’t as special as they used to be… but that’s fine, because why should they be?

  1. UA flies international flat bed 767/777s to HNL from multiple hubs plus a much better recliner-based 777 (much more recline than standard domestic F) in select routes

    It’s not that nice seats to HA don’t exist. It only applies to people who steadfastly refuse to deal with UA.

  2. I remember about 6 years ago, I was on the SFO-HNL flight with United in paid whY. It was my first trip to the islands, and I think it’s safe to say I was pretty darn excited.

    Well, from what I remember, it was a special “aloha” atmosphere onboard, and they also had the “midway to Hawai’i” competition, where the captain gave some information about the flight, and the passengers were to guess the exact time when we were midway to Hawaii from SFO.

    Fast forward to January 2014, I was on the non-stop Newark-Honolulu in United whY Plus. I was hoping they would have that same competition again, unfortunately, they didn’t.

    Also worth mentioning, the FAs’s smiles were as few and far in between as snow in Sahara…

  3. “you won’t believe this, they have a pillow and blanket.” – this is precious.

    but i wish flights to Hawaii were special… after all, they must be getting a lot of honeymooners, those would not mind paying for a nice F product, no?

  4. @patricia — The post Lucky linked to above has a full list of all of the options for getting “good” seats to HI. But I think the bigger point is that nowhere do you really get much by way of a special service on HI routes. UA’s EWR-HNL has a nice lie-flat seat for example but you get basically the same food in Business class as you would on any domestic First flight, even though it is a much longer flight than something like EWR-LHR which has a much-upgraded meal service. You also don’t get amenity kits in premium class even on DL or UA East Coast-Hawaii flights, for example.

  5. @Lantean — I think a lot of honeymooners do pay for F service to Hawaii, but the price premium that even an affluent honeymooner is willing to pay is quite a lot less than the price premium the typical business traveler is willing to (have their employer) pay to go to places like London in business class. You can routinely find NY-Hawaii in business class for $3-4K roundtrip, while outside of occasional sales NY-London business class (60% of the distance) is at least $5-6K roundtrip.

  6. here’s another weird tidbit of info for flying premium class to Hawaii. On my last flight to HNL in F class, I got my boarding ticket and went up to the Admiral Lounge only to be denied entry. Something about passengers flying to Hawaii not qualifying for access to the lounge. Luckily for me (or not depending on how you feel about the Admiral Lounge), I have the Citi Executive card, so I gained entry that way.

  7. Used to fly 747s from SFO to HNL, upper deck. Great service, great food.
    More recently flew (pre merger) UA DEN-HNL on the 767 and had a crew that was decked out in Hawaiian uniforms, flowers in the washroom in F, Trader Vics entrees and Meyers Dark Rum for the Mai Tais.

    Our purser so loved us that she snuck Meyers Dark minis to us with every pass through the cabin, ending up with an air sick back full near landing. We were told to “have one each for every sunset you’ll celebrate at my home”. We were there 7 nights. You can do the math. 🙂

    More recently I had a lie flat 757 non-stop DEN-HNL and will next week have the 777 DEN-HNL. Not as much fun as that 767 ride, I’m sure, as much of the special service has been dropped, and the Mai Tais are now pre-mixed crap. Still, I will always seek out the better seats and non-stop service from wherever I originate to help create my own special moments on my trips to the islands.

  8. In addition to what Bgriff commented on, the wealthy Americans/honeymooners tend to fly private jets to Hawaii.

  9. Wife and I flew UA from LAX to HNL last February and I cleared the “upgrade”. I gave her the seat and bought a delicious breakfast sandwich at Wolfgang Puck. She got the cereal(had to ask for a second container of milk) and yogurt for breakfast as the hot entree was gone halfway through service. Needless to say the angle “flat” seat and bad food didn’t impress her. They did the halfway game but that was about it.

  10. Many years ago I had Hawaii as a sales territory and flew from LAX to HNL on American several times per quarter. As an Executive Platinum member, I always looked forward to flying first class on their 767’s. The service and food was terrific and the trip always a pleasant ‘aloha’ experience. Then American switched to the smaller 757 with terrible 1st class seats and the experience went quickly from pleasant to tolerable. Grumpy ‘older’ FA’s barking orders were a common occurrence. No matter how many times I fly to Hawaii, with or without my family, I always look forward to a fun trip to a special place. How difficult can it be for American to provide a great memorable customer experience when flying to the islands …

  11. I just flew from HI to PHX on US and from the pictures it looks as though the meal and other services are starting to line up — the nut mix and entree look virtually identical to what was served on US. From the west coast, I find the most effective way to get to HI is flying Hawaiian Airlines if you have their credit card. Premium seat service to HI is not great, so if I can get there using 17.5k on HA or use Avios in coach, I don’t mind. I usually try to fly F on the way back, even though it’s a shorter flight. I really haven’t found anyone that can touch HA in terms of a genuinely cool Aloha spirit on the way over, even in coach. Plus, they fly in widebody configurations with 2 seats near the window, and I’m usually flying with family, so we just go 2 and 2 and it’s great.

  12. I just flew to Kauai from LAX on Delta on a miles ticket as a Diamond. I was upgraded both ways and let me tell you the food was horrible and the service was completely uninterested in doing more than chatting with crew or looking at their US Weekly. The grilled Panini was inedible due to it being ice cold in the middle, beside tasting like velveeta and canned chicken on toasted white bread. I really felt sorry for people who paid over 1200 on a first class ticket. Luckily the return was a red eye and I slept most of the flight because the plane was an old 757 with overhead TV’s playing dolphin tale 2 and the hundred foot journey on VHS tapes. Totally crap service and airplane. Delta should really be ashamed to operate this route with such little caring.

  13. And on a related note, HNL last night was an absolute gong show with all the amateurs out in full force. I’ve always said that as an EXP, the LAX-Hawaii routes are some of the easiest upgrades systemwide with all the leisure travelers onboard.

  14. Also, I also see they no longer put the hibiscus flower on the meal tray. Cost cutting measure. I blame Doug.

  15. United flies several international 767s to Hawaii in addition to the newly configured 777s, which have the old United business class (and every so often a 3 class intl 777). It isn’t uncommon to see international 757s doing runs to the secondary Hawaiian markets.

  16. Personally, I think things are better than the old days because of the nonstops from LAX to LIH (or other islands). They have been around for a while but my “old days” maybe older than yours.

    If you think the food out of HNL on AA is bad, try LIH. To small an island for real catering, or so they say. BTW , pistachios are a California theme, so the sundae was a hybrid Cal-Hawaii theme.

  17. Maybe you’re flying the wrong airline. My airline is Alaska and here is what to expect.

    Boarding – greetings by flight attendants in Hawaiian theme uniforms and then passing out the pre-departure mimosas along with your menu with choice of meal.

    Enroute during climbout – warm nuts, hot towels and first beverage call.

    Meal time – you choice of a Hawaiian themed meal. AS uses local restaurants in HI to cater their mainland-bound meals. While I was in LIH, my wife and I went to a fantastic restaurant called Lihue Pasta. During dinner on the return flight, I saw on the bottom of the menu – Catering by Lihue Pasta.

    Prior to landing – the flight attendants hand out Mai Tais. I think they might even do this in economy.

    Sure, Alaska has standard recline first class seats but the service is Hawaii inspired.

    We will be flying to OGG in March on AS in first class.

  18. Ben – you’re missing the biggest reason widebodies have become rarer in favor of e.g. 738s for overseas service — the proliferation of ETOPS-certified 738s and other domestic narrowbody aircraft. They simply didn’t exist in a past generation.

    For what it’s worth, AS has a slightly improved service (more food options, a free Mai Tai in Y on the last service run) to Hawaii, but it’s still basically a domestic product.

  19. I was on the team that built the new Disney Aulani hotel on Oahu a few years back and took 33 trips in 4 years over there during construction.

    I remember the days of widebodies. Here are 2 of my fav stories:
    1) On a red-eye back to CA that was maybe 30% full in 2009, I actually declined an upgrade to first class on a United 777 Domestic because I had a whole row of 5 seats in the middle to myself. I took all the blankets and pillows I could find and made one of the most comfortable beds ever and slept the whole way to CA with the flight attendant waking me up.
    2) I flew SuperBowl Sunday morning from CA to Hawaii on a 777. There were 6, yes 6 of us in First Class that flight. I got to my seat, 1H (I think) and there was someone in it. I said are you supposed to be sitting here, he mumbled, and with the plane pretty empty I just moved a few rows back, no big deal. Well when they came to take drink and food orders before takeoff, the flight attendant asked me for my ticket since she said no one was booked in this seat. I told her I was in 1H but that guy is sitting there. Well, up she goes to him and out comes the boarding pass, “11H” and off he gets walked to economy. I just smiled and moved back up to 1H. I was the only person in row 1 that flight, it was so weird having no one on the plane.

  20. Oddly enough I think the best airline flying to Hawaiian is Hawaiian Airlines. Always a positive attitude from the staff and you truly get that aloha feel.

  21. Reading this makes me miss TW1/2, the STL-HNL-STL 747-200 run. I flew it in F many times. Even when it was “downgraded” to an L1011 it was a fantastic ride.

  22. “Going back a bit over a decade, service to Hawaii was almost exclusively operated by widebodies, while nowadays you have more 737s than any other aircraft flying between the mainland and Hawaii.”

    Going back two decades all tcons were basically also only widebody. Perhaps it took a little longer for the single aisle, twin engines to catch up on their ETOPS rating to make it over the water, but this has more to do with longer range single aisle planes being introduced than anything else, which equates to more flights at more frequency from more locations.

    I have flown UA and AS to the islands in the last few years, in F, and they both have had a little more special flair than your trip, FWIW.

  23. Delta 767 service LAX to HNL offers staggered business class. Not my favorite but best seat out of LAX to HNL.

  24. We took AS F to HNL yesterday from SAN. FA’s were somewhat less friendly than the usual AS first. But probably due to hour delay.

  25. A warm Aloha and E komo mai!

    Lucky, I swear you are following me! First FRA layover (and I was in the Sen lounge), then Sydney, now HI! (Although I’m on the BI).

    For this trip, I flew DL for the first time ATL-HNL on the A330. Lie flat seat, 1-2-1 config, heavenly blanket and pillow. Food passable, one of the FAs seemed drugged of her rocker. But BizElite boarded first, before SkyPass elites, and the seat was comfy sitting and sleeping.

    For the past decade I’ve flown HNL-KOA, UA or AA 737 or 757, depending on miles. Always have to put up with upgrades asking me to move and the horrible seats. I’m a DL convert now, at least for HI!

  26. Ben,

    Could you do a post on redeeming awards to Hawaii? There are so many airlines, and so many combinations of miles you could use to get to Hawaii, that it makes my head spin. Also, many families would love to go to Hawaii, so I’d appreciate if you could focus on options where you could use miles to get several seats in a premium cabin.

  27. United’s DC-8 Friendship service to Hawaii or United 1 ORD HNL 747-200 with the lounge up top! Now that was First Class! Remember the FA’s had the special Hawaii uniform.

  28. We are in SFO on a layover flying to LIH on UA tomorrow, but as far as the flight is concerned…we might as well be flying to Des Moines (even in F). Except they’ll have the crappy Trader Vic’s Mai Tais. My parents lived in Hawaii while I was in college (wayyyy back in the day-early 80’s- I would fly Northwest Orient from PDX to HNL… and even in coach, the flight attendants wore “Hawaiian garb” and served mai tais.)

  29. I just got back from Hawaii on Alaska Air first. Their new Recaro seats in first and economy are so uncomfortable, but now have power and streaming media. The service is amazing though. Having left United last year the difference is noticeable. The FAs were all so nice and in the xmas and Hawaii spirit. They served very good Mai Tai prior to landing and Hawaiian beer in both classes. Alaska from my experience have the nicest FA.

  30. That’s rather unfortunate Ben! My last flights on AA HNL-LAX-HNL in F (on rewards) was great! The purser wasn’t all that friendly, but the flight attendant that served us was great. He was constantly chatting and cracking jokes, while also serving meals course by course. We were thrilled to have him on our return flight once again. We did have the island inspired Sam Choy menu on our return flight (dinner) with a (dry) teriyaki salmon with vegetable fried rice and some asian inspired salad, and of course the sundae. But our outbound flight was a red eye and a snack was served… it was the standard Uno’s Pizza, salad, etc. The flights were very full and the gate agents on the outbound segment even made me unpack some stuff from my carry on because it had a bulge that made it just barely fit in the sizer….

  31. oh wow, we’re both in Honolulu! I’m leaving today.
    I flew United’s 767-400 from Newark – wonderful lie-flat seats, great blanket and pillow. No menus, but the food was solid (omelette, and then later a mid-flight snack). Definitely better than what American and US Air serve in domestic first class, but not international standard.
    It was the seat (and the IFE that comes with it) that was great, on the almost-11-hour flight.

  32. Booked the family (6) on UA in economy on miles. UA has had great availability and since our main objective is to get to the Islands UA will do. If I were paying I’d stay completely away from them…but for miles it’s just too easy.

  33. Wxguy – Any more words on the old L1011 and 747-200 from STL-HNL? Since the last AA widebody from STL was pulled a while back, i’d be happy to hear about when Lambert got flights to more distant locations than Dallas or Denver…

  34. At least the nuts weren’t in a plastic bag. I had to Google “Kristen Stewart” and am still not sure I get the reference entirely.

    I agree with Vicky, although I believe their fleet it pretty old: “I think the best airline flying to Hawaiian is Hawaiian Airlines. Always a positive attitude from the staff and you truly get that aloha feel.”

  35. I have to echo what others have proclaimed: Alaska is the way to go for the best service to Hawaii, and it comes down to the simple fact that on a consistent basis, THEY CARE, and it shows. I can’t compare to Hawaiian, but compared to the legacy carriers, they are heads and shoulders above them.

  36. Braniff didn’t have any lie-flat seats, but their First Class (at that time) was among the best, easily beating AA on DFW-HNL. Their crews could be as much fun then as a WN crew can be now.

  37. To those of you mentioning Alaska. Don’t disagree that they have better “themed” service, but I find Alaska’s first class seats to be the most uncomfortable in the industry. I’d take just about any other first class seat over what they offer.

  38. @ Luis — Yep, correct. Hawaii is considered a domestic market so isn’t eligible for lounge access.

  39. Delta since the 1980s has operated daily and sometimes multiple, daily nonstops from ATL to HNL and at times nonstops (and 1-stops) from ATL to OGG. Since the route’s inception, besides leisure and FF ticketed passengers there has always been a healthy amount of business travelers paying often $1,000 or more for R/T Y-class seating and even more for premium seating. Originally operated with L1011’s and now to only HNL they fly A330-300s the service is still popular with both leisure as well business travelers alike. After the NW merger, Delta immediately put 747’s on the route (pre-refurbishment, seating 403 passengers) that were departing full each day. Then after the 747 fleet was redone and with about 20-30 fewer seats, Delta continued to operate the route with 747’s and were by then seeing more paid premium passengers with the improved onboard product. Now they’re back to using A330-300s year round and are still running mostly full as the route has always operated. Having traveled the route on business for 25+ years and sometime as often as 9-10x a year, I have consistently found Delta’s hard/soft product and service, both in F & Y cabins to be as good or better as any of their international flights…and have most always found smiling crews, pleasing attitudes, good food, service and drink on the flights along with a definite feeling of “Aloha” that Delta displays all the way on their island flights (from ATL). These flights in both directions have always been well timed..especially on the flight from HNL-ATL, you just can’t beat the time savings coming east. Departing in the late afternoon and arriving the following morning in ATL allows for much more time on departure day in HNL for business as opposed to leaving HNL on a morning flight then connecting on the west coast and arriving back in ATL exhausted close to midnight. BTW these services definitely have the feel and “flow” of a long-haul international flight as ATL-HNL is 4,502 NM and ATL-FRA being 4,614 NM and thereby the stage lengths allow the time for the improved service onboard.

  40. My very first AAdvantage redemption was a 50K award for 1 First Class roundtrip ticket to Hawaii (+ a First Class upgrade for a traveling companion) I flew JFK-LAX-HNL and return and got 3-class F to/from LAX and 2-class F to/from HNL. All flights were on DC10s. It was a very comfy, though not flat, seat to LAX and a roomy seat to HNL. The flight attendant on the fishbowl DC10 LAX-HNL carved chateaubriand from the cart and they wore special Island themed uniforms. Cheese, crackers, fruit, candy and snacks were set out on the credenza. The service was non-stop and awesome. How far the Hawaii service has gone downhill in the last 30 years.

  41. Once, back in 1999, I flew LAX-HNL-LAX-HNL-LAX (four flights) within a 5 day span. I had to be both in Hawaii and LA for reasons beyond my control. Back at that time both HA and AA operated the DC10 on the route (I alternated between the carriers) and remember being impressed by the service on both. Granted this was still at the time that food was still offered on domestic flights, but I definitely remember the upgraded service, even in coach.

  42. “Reading this makes me miss TW1/2, the STL-HNL-STL 747-200 run.”

    Reading this makes me miss the Hawaiian Packet Line steamers that used to run between San Francisco and Honolulu…

    Oh, wait, that was 1864, not 1964.

  43. I agree with Daryl. I’ve enjoyed the ATL-HNL route for years from the L-1011 back in the ’90’s, to the upper deck of the 747 in the summer of ’09. The service now on the Airbus is superior with the truly flat beds.

    I think some people often overlook this route for some reason. Over time Delta has consistently flown the best seat available in the industry from the mainland to Hawaii via this Atl route.

    One criticism is that Delta’s KOA-LAX plane is really old. That one needs to be mothballed.

  44. I started working for UA in ’99 and in the first three years took 5 trips to Hawaii as a non-rev. Every time I ended up in C or F and flew on the 747-200, 747-400, 777 domestic and 767 domestic. In F on the 47’s they had tropical flowers arranged in the center console thing. Flowers in lavs. Special uniforms. Special announcements. Sam Choy meals. And of course the mai tais with a stick of fresh fruit in it! What an amazing time it was. It was an extension of the trip, and getting there was half the fun. I’m glad I got to experience the good ole days, because flying now, even in a premium class of service, isn’t all that – at least domestically.

  45. The DFW-HNL service is a 763 with AA’s old International J seat. Although food is pretty much domestic. I assume that once all 763 get new seats, that the new lie flat seats will be offered out of DFW.

  46. And then on the lounge side – AA closed its own Admiral’s Club and now uses the JAL Lounge (with AC representatives). The JAL lounge does offer soup and snacks – so better than a real AC in that regard.

  47. Why should flights to Hawaii be special? Why? Because for many Americans, Hawaii is so different than the rest of the US. The only place in America, during winter that is guaranteed to be warm. Hawaii is the place that many, many baby boomers honeymooned. Hawaii was also the place that used to be the aspirational destination for most frequent flyers. Hawaii was that aspirational destination for well over a decade, perhaps 2 decades. Economy award ticket was commonly 25K to 35K, so very easy to earn for a yearly trip for 2 or 4 people. Why is the service to Hawaii not special? Hawaii is domestic destination that isn’t the big draw that used to be. The legacy carriers won’t waste their money on a domestic destination. It’s a shame, because Hawaii is just as beautiful as Bali, Tahiti or the Maldives.

  48. Within the last 3 years, I’ve flown to Hawaii a couple of times on DL, AA, AS, and HA. Since I was flying with family, we were in economy (sometimes +), and from that perspective, I agree with the other commentators that AS and HA had the best coach experience.

  49. My first and only time to Hawaii was back in the spring of 1972. I was in Grade 4 at the time. I went with my parents and my sister and we flew Pan Am flight 1 from LAX to HNL. I forget the flight number from HNL to LAX. That was my first time on a jumbo jet and the plane was a Boeing 747. We sat in a centre section of four seats both ways. I believe the meal was chicken teriyaki and there was no choice of entrée but on the return flight passengers in coach were offered guava juice before departure.

  50. Amazed by blanket and pillow? I was surprised when they served a meal on my first ever upgrade in domestic first class. I was like whaaaattt? Foooooood?

  51. For those that remember “the good ol days” when flying to Hawaii used to be a pleasant experience, it was because the flights to/from Hawaii were manned by Hawaii-based crews. In the early to mid 2000s, the legacy carriers forced the Hawaii based crews to relocate to the mainland or give up their line. Now the crews are mainlanders who have seniority and are as likely to smile as the grinch.

    The only airline that consistently flies with Hawaii-based crews is Hawaiian Airlines. Hence, the service is usually very nice and much more pleasant, even in Y. (With little recline combined with short west coast flights, I am hard pressed to ever pay for F on HA.)

  52. This is all I will contribute…UA svc to HI post merger is a complete embarrassment…just 1 item in a long list that’s Jeff’ed up…

  53. I’m from Hawaii and have flown home once a year from abroad-living in Europe for the last 3 years now- and trying to get business or “first class” domestic seats on US airlines that are flat bed, or even the angled flat-bed are near impossible. It’s absolutely frustrating. On top of that, from my last research the only flatbeds going between LAX-HNL are like 7am-9am (can’t remember exactly)… shouldn’t they be scheduled for evening flights, when people actually sleep?

    I’m more than willing to pay the price, but it’s just not offered unless I want to bother book 2 separate tickets to go through Asia (ex: Korean Air) versus with Delta or a European airline that is code-shared.

    On top of that, it’s just really sad that flying with my European husband we have this lame “first class” which would hardly be economy on flight within Europe or Asia.

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