Why Aren’t There Nicer Seats To Hawaii?

Filed Under: Awards

Posts from me are going to be a bit lighter over the next week as I continue my dad’s round the world surprise birthday tripAs you may (or may not) know, I also have a points consulting service, whereby we help people redeem their airline miles. I have several colleagues working with me, and they’re some of the most knowledgeable and passionate people I know in this hobby. They’ve offered to pitch in and write a few posts to give me a bit more time off while I’m traveling, so hopefully you’ll enjoy the additional unique perspectives. This post is from my friend Alex, who is even more of an airline nut than I am.  — Ben

A common award request PointsPros receives is for trips to Hawaii, which has seen insane growth over the past few years with Alaska’s (the airline, not the state 😉 ) expansion from the West Coast. Quite often people are looking for the best product to Hawaii, and really want a lie-flat seat.


Why aren’t there more lie-flat seats to Hawaii?

If airlines had their way, there would be no lie-flat seats offered to Hawaii. They’d probably fly sardine cans if they could. It’s a leisure market, and fares and service reflect that. A sub-six hour flight on United from Newark to London serves a meal in Economy, while an eleven hour flight from Newark to Honolulu only offers meals for purchase. A little ridiculous in my book, but that’s what the market dictates.

Let’s look at fares.

  • The round-trip fare in first class on Newark-Honolulu is $3,369.60
  • The round-trip fare in “BusinessFirst” on Newark-London is $5,218.20




Keep in mind, New York to London is a highly competitive market, if not the most competitive in the world. And while it’s the same “BusinessFirst” seat, United markets it as “United First,” their domestic nomenclature.

It’s $1,848.60 less to fly to Honolulu than it is to London, which is nearly 3,000 more flown miles round-trip. A great example of market based pricing, rather than rational pricing.


The same logic applies to the service on board. You’ll get a five-course meal (definitely not five-star quality) on Newark-London, but a two-course meal (the second course is an ice cream sundae) on Newark-Honolulu. There’s a pre-arrival snack on both flights, but even in first class, you’re going to walk off the plane hungry in Honolulu, while you’ll be bloated in London.

Although American, Delta, and United serve Hawaii with internationally configured aircraft, it’s because they don’t have other aircraft capable of operating long routes, and it’s not efficient to create a small subfleet of aircraft for just a few routes.

For example, United runs an international 767-400 with lie-flat seats on Newark to Honolulu, but they also run it on one of their flights from San Francisco to Honolulu. Why that one flight, and not the three others run by domestic aircraft? Aircraft utilization. The flight departs San Francisco in the afternoon, and turns right around for Newark. The same applies in reverse. This is a more efficient flying pattern than just flying an aircraft between Newark and Honolulu.

Funnily enough, United is an exception to this rule, and they have been for years. They have a special subfleet of 777s for Hawaii. Previously, United’s high-density 777 had 36 standard domestic first class seats, but United recently reconfigured these planes with their last generation of international business class seat, which was quite an improvement. The seat count only dropped by four, because they added an extra seat per row. But why? These planes also fly to Guam, but if they just ran routes like Chicago-Honolulu, you can bet they’d keep the same miserable configuration.

Let’s look at Hawaiian Airlines – their first class product is marginally better than a standard domestic first class seat. You get about 8-10 inches of extra “pitch” (legroom) and a legrest on their A330s, but it’s a far-cry from the lie-flat seats Delta offers on their A330 running Atlanta to Honolulu. But Hawaiian also flies these same seats to Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, hence the improved product.

Realistically, you shouldn’t expect to get a premium product on a non-premium route. With that said, I’d likely do what I could to get on one of these flights, but expect to pay more than the saver rate if you’re using miles.

Where can you get lie-flat seats?

You can get “lie-flat” seats on just a handful of routes:

  • American (angled lie-flat): Dallas/DFW-Honolulu/HNL, Dallas/DFW-Maui/OGG
  • Delta: Los Angeles/LAX-Honolulu/HNL; Atlanta/ATL-Honolulu/HNL; New York/JFK-Honolulu/HNL
  • United: Newark/EWR-Honolulu/HNL; San Francisco/SFO-Honolulu/HNL; Washington/IAD-Honolulu/HNL

Delta’s A330 BusinessElite product that operates ATL to HNL

American’s 767-300 business class product that operates DFW to HNL and OGG

United’s 767-400 BusinessFirst product that operates EWR and SFO to HNL 

Of course, this is all subject to change, and the only routes I’d really count on are Dallas, Newark, and Atlanta to Honolulu, as well as Dallas-Maui.

The real issue is that airlines almost never release saver award space on these flights

To book an award seat on one of these flights, you’ll likely need to have miles in the operating airline’s program because you can’t use partner programs to book non-saver level award space.

  • American requires anywhere from 67,500 to 125,000 AAdvantage miles for a one-way “AAnytime Award”
  • Delta requires 80,000 to 95,000 SkyMiles for a “Standard” or “Peak” one-way award under their current 2014 SkyMiles award chart (although you still have to book it as a round-trip)
  • United requires 90,000 miles for a “Standard” one-way award

Although, to be fair, there are a handful of dates with saver award space on American’s DFW-HNL and DFW-OGG flights.

Back to the United Newark-Honolulu example, it’s $3369.60 for a paid fare, but you’re going to be paying 180,000 MileagePlus miles for that same trip. You’re only getting 1.87 cents of value per mile, which isn’t a great redemption unless you’re drowning in miles and want to burn them.

In some cases, I’d suggest paying outright for the seat (if you can afford it), but I’m in the camp of “I would never pay for premium cabins with cash, just miles,” so you can wave to me from first class while I’m in Economy Plus.

I really love being able to build itineraries for clients that exceed expectations, and it always saddens me to give bad news when somebody wants to book one of the “nice” flights to Hawaii.

Do you think it’s worth the premium to have a lie-flat seat to Hawaii?

  1. Air Canada used to fly their internationally-configured planes to Hawaii an all routes, but most routes are now Rouge. The remaining lie-flat Hawaii routes on Air Canada are:


    I am flying YVR-KOA in a month in business on Aeroplan redemption.

  2. Anecdotally, I would think there would be a market for a leisure airline with a handful of super-premium seats to run the LAX-OGG/KOA/HNL routes, but of course without a healthy business traveler market, that isn’t ever going to happen. Still, from LAX (and a little less so, from SFO) you get big spenders, celebrities and others accustomed to real first class, and Hawaii remains a top luxury leisure destination from the West Coast.

    I’ve flown United in “First” from LAX-KOA and even for domestic first it was sad. Old seats, no IFE. Any future flights to Hawaii will be on Delta’s lie flat route via HNL (which is, incidentally, not priced any higher than the non-lie-flat Delta routes to Hawaii, but offers a far higher chance of getting upgraded — and a reminder that Medallions can get complimentary upgrades to Hawaii from the West Coast).

    But I think there could be a market for an airline like Virgin Atlantic to offer at least a cut above standard domestic first to swoop in to the LAX/SFO – Hawaii routes.

  3. AA’s new 321s have changed the game in getting to Hawaii from NYC for me. I now change planes at LAX or SFO to avoid 11 hours in a domestic first class seat. Award availability in First is usually pretty good for 47.5k — and when you have a lie-flat, international-quality transcon, the 4-5 hour over-water leg on Alaska or Hawaiian is much more bearable.

  4. Nice to be the exception: IAH to HNL 11-28-14 business/first as a holdover completion from a trip to Frankfort/Milan last spring. Returning 12-5-14 HNL to EWR business/first for 40K miles. It was only open for a couple of hours earlier this month. Then back home to NOLA on SWA with companion pass.

  5. A few comments on the EWR-HNL flight, since I just recently took it at the beginning of September. It’s a morning flight, so there’s no sundae after breakfast (I’ve heard the HNL-EWR flight, which is a redeye, does serve the sundae). They do give you a second meal, which they call a “snack,” about halfway through the flight. On my flight, it was a burger, which as far as United food goes was quite good and filling. I’ve heard the other snack options are not quite as good. I definitely didn’t arrive hungry though.

    As for your comment on saver award space, you’re right that they rarely release it, although I flew it on miles booking the saver so it definitely happens. I also closely monitored the flight’s availability leading up to my flight, as I was interested in seeing if they opened up more award space, since F was about half empty until a week or so before the flight. Sure enough they opened up a decent amount of saver space, and the cabin filled. So if you’re willing to book last minute, I’ll bet you can snag seats on this flight.

    One other thing – United runs their 764s from IAD-HNL seasonally. So this is another option to look into if you want a flat seat and are headed to Hawaii during the summer. I don’t think this is a daily flight.

  6. @Nick:

    You might think that, but UA, AA, DL and CO have been running service from LAX to Hawaii for decades. Either all four companies have revenue management departments staffed by clueless idiots and have failed to notice this market for decades while having planes perfectly capable of supporting this model (AA could easily run 757s with slanty lie-flat out of LAX to Hawaii 100% of the time, instead of beater domestic 757s mixed in with occasional 763s they use for aircraft utilization similar to UA, for instance), or your supposition might be wrong. You can decide which of these is the case. 😉

    The problem with premium class service on a route that’s above and beyond standard domestic F is that unless you have real, sufficient demand, you end up with a sales model based around the old joke about the million dollar glass of lemonade- “Sure, I haven’t sold any yet, but I only need to sell one!”. I might also note that VX is on year 7 of their operations, with no ETOPS-equipped A320s in sight (or on the property before 2015 at the earliest).


    AS doesn’t fly LAX/SFO-Hawaii. Do you fly JFK-LAX-SJC/SAN/SEA/PDX-Hawaii and throw in an extra connection if you’re flying AS? Sounds more like “5 hours in lie flats and 8+ hours connecting + domestic F” to me…

  7. Over the summer, my family went to Hawaii, I got my sister got on an intl 777 HNL-DEN on F saver award and I got BusinessFirst on 764 HNL-IAH. I occasionally look at the Hawaii routes, and while it is less common than it was during the summer, intl planes fly other Hawaii routes on a seemingly random, but not rare, basis.

  8. We paid three F oneway flights from BWI > PHX > LIH on US Airways and then scored three F oneway flights on saver miles back. Hence, I’m the idiot who actually bought F tickets over Christmas/New Years and then scored three free flights back.

    I paid – there’s demand.
    I scored freebies – they exist.

    I don’t even know what to expect on the LIH route? I’m guessing not much, which is a shame.

  9. @eponymous coward: On second thought, I actually do think there is a not-insubstantial business traveler component to the HNL-LAX, HNL-SFO flights (from OGG and KOA and LIH, not so much). Most any business going on in Hawaii deals with LA or SF as their gateway to the mainland, so I get that. It’s not in the league of the LAX/SFO-NYC business traffic, but it’s robust-ish. From NYC, ATL, DFW, ORD, etc., that’s got to be a FAR lower percentage of business travelers, so I can see the lack of investment on hard product on those routes.

  10. I have redeemed EWR-HNL RT without a problem last year… I guess your’e saying that has changed? the availability was fairly decent.

  11. I’ve been hoping for a HNL-DFW first class seat on AA for months. Gotta love seeing 7+ AAnytime awards but never a sAAver.

  12. “A great example of market based pricing, rather than rational pricing.”

    You keep using that word (rational). I do not think it means what you think it means.

  13. With UA you can fly in PS, which has lie-flat business class seats, from JFK to SFO or LAX, and then transfer to UA’s regular crappy domestic first for the overwater leg. Not ideal if you just want to sleep for 11 hours and wake up in Hawaii, but PS award availability is sometimes better than the east coast-Hawaii availability.

  14. Flew YYZ-EWR-HNL-EWR-DCA back in April on a paid ticket and upgraded to J with an RPU.
    Totally worth it IMO for such a long flight.

    FYI, look into flying YYZ-EWR-HNL in international business class config, tickets price a lot cheaper from Toronto, than from NYC, WAS area (example, from US$ 2320 r/t in Feb 2015, various dates)

  15. I flew the ATL-HNL non-stop this summer in BusinessElite on the A330. The cabin was full of what I assume to be revenue tickets given that there’s rarely award space (although 8 of those seats I had booked). The flight departed in the morning, so lunch was the main course (followed by the sundae), but IIRC, they also served a sandwich basket a few hours prior to arrival.

  16. I flew BQN-EWR-HNL/OGG-LAX-EWR-BQN in Business for $1170 this spring, I got 764 on EWR-HNL and lie-flat 752 on LAX-EWR.
    Also UA are using lie-flat 752 on DEN-HNL/OGG/LIH/KOA this winter

  17. DL does not have JFK – HNL non-stop. They ended their HNL-SFO route. We’ll see what they put onto the HNL-SEA route. The HNL-LAX lie flat seats are only on one flight a day, 5 days a week as through flights to/from Japan. The HNL-SLC 767 (not flat seats) is like riding on the old BOS-AMS DC10 on NW. They will fly the old planes into the ground.

  18. @magres It’s true that most of the time DL doesn’t have a JFK-HNL flight, but they are running one this holiday season with lie flats. Not sure if this is an annual thing or not.

  19. If flying from the west coast, your best bet is really to fly Hawaiian in their Y+ product on the A330. Even plain Y is fine, as you’ll get AVOD at every seat, free meals except on certain red eyes, and a free alcoholic beverage with your meal. Yeah it’s not a lie-flat seat, but you aren’t being nickeled and dimed to death.

  20. Air Canada rouge starts flying from YYZ-HNL twice a week this winter.

    Air Canada rouge also operates YVR-HNL and YVR-OGG.

    Air Canada Mainline operates YVR-KOA and YYC-OGG.


    My favourite story about traveling to Hawaii was when I worked for Northwest Airlines in YYC. Back in the day, SFO was notorious for ATC and weather delays. The poor ticket agents with United that checked in right beside me always struggled with rebooking passengers to Hawaii when there was an IROP. UA always had a lot of folks going YYC-SFO-Hawaii.

    It ended up that UA could always get them to SFO but it would be standby to Hawaii on the next flight. Try explaining to a family of four or five to standby on oversold flights from SFO-Hawaii in the winter during peak season and no one likes the idea. They would turn to OAL for reprotection and the story would go like this:

    “Paul, can we make the magic happen for confirmed tickets to Hawaii again?” the UA Agent would ask.
    “Let me take a look; what passports are they traveling on?” I would ask. Almost always Canadian. Strange looks would appear on the faces of the parents.
    “Sure, I can have them confirmed with seats together with an arrival first thing tomorrow morning.”
    Sounds good so far, right? Next was the kicker…
    “The routing is YYC-MSP-NRT-HNL/OGG.” The flight times/schedules were perfect using the time zones and the hub and spoke network to our advantage – just over an hour to connect in both MSP and NRT and one would arrive in Hawaii around 08:00 the next morning.
    The look on the faces when they realized what I was suggesting was priceless: Dad is like ‘no way am I traveling for the next 22 hours’; Mom is like ‘at least we’ll get there and get seats together and not worry about being stuck in SFO; and we’ll really only loose out on one night’; the kids are wide-eye and smiling ‘We’re going to Japan!?’ It was quite funny.

    Most of the time it they took the NW option and earned a lot of frequent travel miles (I always signed them up for WorldPerks), arrive confirmed (albeit a little exhausted), and got to visit another continent along the way. I sometimes wonder if it was really worth it and if I’d do the same in a similar option.

  21. @echino – good to know, thanks! Most of the award redemptions I book are for those originating in the US, and routings via Canada aren’t allowed.

  22. @Evan – correct, but the flight is once weekly and seasonal, so it totally slipped my mind. A far cry from the original schedule where it was near daily (I think) with a good amount of saver first awards on it.

  23. @Bert – I guess the meal depends on timing (depending on if the departure shifts into the “lunch” window). The issue with counting on last minute saver award space is that you’re counting on an empty cabin for that to happen, which can be tough when planning a vacation not prepared to fly in coach.

  24. @Kris – Awesome! United had been subbing in 3-cabin international 777s while the domestic 777s were in for their retrofits. It wasn’t intentional, and subject to change, hence why I didn’t mention that in my post.

  25. @Jake – the meal standards are reasonably good on American to Hawaii, so I wonder if they’ve brought it over to US Airways Hawaii flights yet? You’ll have to let me know, but regardless, you’re going to LIH, and once you get there, you’ll forget all about the flight.

  26. @Lantean – yup, award space is just terrible on the route now. In fact it seems most of United’s saver award space in first class has dried up.

  27. @ Alex – Thanks for the great post!

    Have been wanting to treat mom to Hawaii for the longest time but the prospect of a long uncomfortable trip (no international planes out of Houston anymore) is not all that appealing. Instead of using miles have been thinking of flying on Alaska through Seattle using $99 companion fare from their card.

  28. @flyingfish: I know this was addressed to Alex but figured I would chime in… Alaska is a great airline but their F product is nothing special and seats are standard domestic F recliner seats, possibly with less pitch than you are used to on an AA or UA. Catering also isn’t Alaska’s strong suit, although I was pleasantly surprised with the F meals to and from HNL on my flights earlier this year. Again, nothing to rave about but it certainly isn’t lie flat … Given the choice I would probably take Hawaiian (very nice F, although still not lie flat) and a lie flat on UA sounds nice, but then again I have grown not to trust UA and typically avoid them whenever possible 🙂

  29. Korean Air flies to HNL. You would either have to stopover in ICN or start in Canada, though. YYZ-ICN-HNL anyone?

  30. @ Alex Yea, the timing depends on when the flight leaves. It used to leave early afternoon, and was a lunch flight. But it has shifted and been a 9:30 AM flight for the past year or so.

    Totally agreed – you can’t really count on last minute flights if you absolutely HAVE to fly premium cabin. I was just pointing out that you have a pretty decent shot of finding it last minute. I checked yesterday and saw F awards on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. You could always book economy awards, which seem to be much easier to find, and monitor for F seats to open up and then pay the fee to modify your award reservation

    As for people that want to “count on” flying premium, I say they need to either pony up the cash or get over it. Hawaii is an amazing destination, and you’re there for much longer than you’re on the plane. Flying in economy along with 85%+ of travelers to Hawaii is probably going to be just fine in the end. But if it’s not, and you care more about the plane flight, I suppose just find another destination…

  31. @ eponymous coward – My bad. I flew AA and HA — I only cited AS coz it’s the other AAdvantage partner that flies to Hawaii from the west coast. Obviously a connecting flight on the west coast wouldn’t be worth it.

    I *have*, however, flown OGG-OAK and then taken the BART to SFO for a red-eye to JFK, as it was the only first class availability on any route. Preferable to going the whole way in coach. Needless to say, that route doesn’t show up as a connection online so it’s a good one to bear in mind if you’re struggling to find award availability.

  32. Expect United’s standard domestic first class breakfast if it’s coded as breakfast, or their transcontinental lunch/dinner service if coded as a lunch flight.

    Pre-arrival, you can expect no choice, something like a cheeseburger or a chicken wrap.

    Enjoy your time in Hawaii!

  33. I’ve flown fully on Air Canada aeroplan points to Hawaii on United airlines in 2013. The flights went YOW – IAD in economy and then IAD to HNL in United business first. With lie flat seats. And this was the same for my return flight. I’m not sure how I got lucky like that but when I called aeroplan to pick my seat even the lady on the phone was impressed.

  34. i live in HI. i was always under the impression that the trans-pacific flight was the most lucrative for airlines and that’s why it costs so much to do so. reading this article, and life experience, has taught me it’s not so much the profit margin as it is the competition. i think HNL only allows so many in from any direction. any others that would want to break into the market are charged exorbitant fees. maybe i’m wrong, but consider HNL to LAX is $600-ish and LAX to JFK is $400-ish, kind of for the same distance. soap box time.
    Don’t patronize Hawaiian Airlines. They subsidize trans-pacific costs with inter island costs. To fly inter island on HA it’s $250-ish to fly 200 miles. i can fly 5x that length for the same price on the continent. there’s just no competition. we had a ferry; they shut it down. we had other airlines; they dropped prices to shut them down. their mileage program is ~1.2 cents per mile.

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