It's no secret that flights between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii don't have a terrific reputation when it comes to first-class seat product. Hawaiian Airlines is hoping to change that, however, announcing plans earlier this fall to debut an overhauled premium cabin onboard its Airbus A330s starting in the second quarter of 2016.
"There's been a sense in the industry that people weren't willing to pay for a really quality first-class experience, because there is this perception of leisure as being price-sensitive," Avi Mannis, Hawaiian's senior vice president of marketing, said of the Aloha State market.
"But these are vacations that are really important to people," he continued. "And there are plenty of people that are willing to spend a bit more to have a better, more premium experience."
Hawaiian worked with Italian manufacturer Optimares to create an entirely new lie-flat seat. The carrier will arrange the new 18-seat first-class cabin in a 2-2-2 configuration, where the lie-flat seats will convert to 76-inch beds.
"It's been a really interesting process for us because we didn't buy a seat off the shelf," Mannis said, noting that about 70% of Hawaiian's customers are leisure travelers.
"Other airlines don't generally have a lot of people traveling together in their first-class cabins," he added. "It's a lot of businesspeople, [but] more of our guests are traveling with someone else when they're in first class, [so] we wanted to build a seat that gave you a degree of privacy if you wanted it but also allowed you to share the experience."
Along with honeymooners and couples, Mannis said you'll frequently find families flying in Hawaiian's first-class cabin, so the airline's design team decided not to opt for the usual distance between the seats, "designed to sort of shield you from the customer next to you," that's found so commonly in competitors' premium cabins.
"In our seats, there is a translucent privacy screen that raises and lowers," Mannis explained. "If you lower it, you can feel like you're sitting next to someone at dinner that you'd like to be sitting with."
Hawaiian Airlines’ Airbus A330s will be fitted with new first-class configurations starting in the second quarter of 2016.
Susan Tanzman, president of Martin's Travel and Tours in Los Angeles, described Hawaiian's first-class upgrade plans as "the best thing in the world."
"The service to Hawaii is so poor by most of the carriers," she said. "It's just not first-class service, [so] I think Hawaiian has an opportunity to really hit a home run with this."
Tanzman also agreed that there are many U.S. leisure travelers who would be interested in flying to the Islands in the premium cabins Hawaiian is planning.
"It's a smart move, and I think it's time for it," she said. "There are enough people that want to go in that class and really be catered to, especially long-haul. When you're talking about coming from the East Coast, it's a real plus."
Hawaiian will retrofit one of its Airbus A330s with new premium-cabin seating in Q2 but will hold off on further upgrades until September, following the busy summer travel season in the Islands, according to Mannis.
The carrier plans to retrofit all 23 of its A330s with the new premium cabins, but Mannis said Hawaiian hasn't decided on finalized routing for the aircraft, although he indicated the carrier's New York-to-Honolulu nonstop made good sense.
"You're [also] going to see it on a number of our West Coast routes, where we have big markets like San Francisco, L.A., Seattle," he said. "Those will most likely continue to be A330 routes."
The carrier has also designed telescoping arms for its onboard entertainment.
"We'll be providing every guest with a new, top-of-the-line tablet loaded with content that we've provided," Mannis said. "But the tablet arm that comes out will also facilitate them using their own devices if they'd prefer."
Hawaiian is also adding more premium economy room on its A330s, bumping the Extra Comfort seat total from 40 to 68. Extra Comfort passengers can take advantage of priority boarding at the gate; complimentary, on-demand, in-seat entertainment; 36 inches of seat pitch; and a personal power outlet.
"Since we launched it about two years ago, I think the Extra Comfort product has really surpassed our expectations," Mannis said. "And we're adding more seats to keep up with what's really been great demand."