American’s Bold Move to Put Airbus A321s on West Coast – Hawaii Flights

Currently American Airlines flies Boeing 757s and 767s to Hawaii.

American is reportedly going to replace their Boeing 757s flying Los Angeles – Honolulu with Airbus A321s. Eventually Los Angeles – Maui and Kauai will get the 321s as well.

These aren’t the A321s flying between New York and Los Angeles/San Francisco with three cabins.

American’s first class cabin, Airbus A321 “transcon” flying New York – San Francisco/Los Angeles

Rather they’ll be A321s with 16 domestic first class seats. This begins in September. While these will be aircraft with new-style interiors, not all elite frequent flyers will be happy with the upgrade since it means losing 757s that have 24 first class seats. So it’s likely to be a tougher upgrade.

American’s new coach interior, Airbus A319

American’s new coach seat, Airbus A319

American’s new first class seat, Boeing 737

US Airways 757s flying between Phoenix and Honolulu and Maui have only 14 first class seats. Phoenix – Honolulu should eventually get some of the American 757s instead, which are newer aircraft. That should make the Phoenix flights marginally more enjoyable but also much better for upgrades.

Here’s the trick, though, it seems — American will have ETOPS-certification for these Airbus A321s. (My non-specialist understanding was that a longer-range A321 ‘neo’ is still a few years off.)

Virgin America plans to start Hawaii service from San Francisco in November with Airbus A320s. That was expected to be the first time that anyone would fly a narrowbody Airbus between the Mainland US and Hawaii. Those planes just haven’t had the range to be certified for “ETOPS” (‘extended twin operations’ or the ability to fly on a single engine if they lost one for a required length of time).

While Airbus planes can fly just as far over the U.S., they can always divert to another airport if something happens or they run low on fuel. Westbound in winter against heavy winds that happens. Similarly, British Airways flies an Airbus A318 from London City airport to Shannon, Ireland to New York JFK. The flight from Shannon to New York is longer than West Coast – Hawaii. But there’s only a handful of passengers on the plane (less weight burns less fuel) and there are places over the Atlantic for them to divert if they had to (Shannon to Gander is less than 2000 miles).

The Virgin America A320s – and the American A321s – are being delivered with ‘sharklets’ which greatly improve fuel efficiency. Still, Virgin America doesn’t have the certification to fly these planes to Hawaii yet. They’ve still got 5 months, though, and even that could be a stretch. American now plans to do it in less time. I’m going to see what I can learn about American’s certification process, how they plan to get this done more quickly than Virgin America.

And when they do they’re going to have a small subfleet of A321s that are dedicated to Hawaii. That’s expensive because it limits fleet efficiency. US Airways has historically avoided subfleets. That’s why their New York – Boston – Washington DC ‘shuttle’ markets added in first class. It wasn’t because they expected to sell first class on these frequent short flights, or because they wanted to reward elites with upgrades. They didn’t want to have a dedicated all-coach fleet for the shuttle the way they used to. They wanted a fleet that could be moved around as-needed for operational efficiency. So it’s curious to see this move.

Other airlines have gotten the long range overwater certification for their Boeing 737s. And American is a huge operator of new 737s. So I’m surprised they didn’t move in that direction.

All in all this seems an interesting move, possibly challenging to pull off and difficult operationally given the need for a subfleet dedicated to the Hawaii routes. They must see a lot of upside in moving these flights to newer and more fuel efficient planes. They hold about within 5% the same number of passengers, so it’s not about being able to downsize capacity.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. From a passenger perspective, the 321 has wider seats. The 17.2″ seats on the 757 are just awful, so given the same pitch, the new plane would be an improvement.

  2. As a Long time Airline Employee, What I find Amusing, Enlightening and Ignorant is How many of You Arm Chair Quarterbacks THINK You know More than Airline Executives who are actually Paid to Make These Decisions. Everyone is a CRITIC these Days, yet They have Little DATA to back Up any of their “Knows All Attitude”. It really is amazing.

  3. @reese: So, I’m genuinely curious, what points in this post are incorrect? What position do you hold with an airline? And why do you capitalize just about every word in your writing?

    I had heard about Virgin’s plans though hadn’t followed closely as I don’t live near any airport that they service. Always interesting to follow the changes that come about and will see how things flesh out in the end. All I know for sure is, I’m wishing I was on the beach somewhere in HI right about now – regardless of how I got there!

  4. @reece

    On the internet we can all be doctors, lawyers, movie stars, and *long time airline employees* (says the janitor that sweeps in front of the ceo’s boardroom).

    How about some factual statements to back up your assertions. I.e. I think this statement is incorrect because *reason*

  5. Reese — if you have a point that refutes anything anyone is saying, why not make your point and let it rise or fall on its merits. Just calling people ignorant may make you feel good, but it doesn’t in any way add to the discussion. Instead of wasting energy on capitalizing random letters in your post why not give your thoughts on how American will get certified or why a narrowbody HI subfleet makes sense. Otherwise, you’re just a trolling. Worse, when the airline executives you’re touting just ran their company into bankruptcy, it’s kind of hard to take even your trolling seriously.

  6. @reece

    The airline industry is hard to break into to get a job at higher levels and I promise you, some of us do know more than them and it’s why our companies don’t continually have to file for bankruptcy. Don’t think for a second your fearless leaders know everything, many of them blew the right ppl at the right time, ie Jeff Smisek.

  7. Flying the Atlantic with the A318/319 offers several more ETOPS options than cross the Pacific to Hawaii, so an easier route to certification. Since most flights take a northerly routing, there’s diversion possibilities to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland/Labrador, whereas across the Pacific there’s no alternative landing possibilities before reaching the Hawaiian islands or the mainland. BTW AC has been flying an ETOPS certified A319 between YYT (St. John’s Newfoundland) and LHR during the summer peak travel months, mixed class configuration. And of course, BA’s flights are all business, thus having a lighter load for the greater distance from LCY, though the A318 variant of the A319 was modified to handle such over water flights. (Though it was LH that started flying Airbus and Boeing narrow bodies across the Atlantic with its all-business service under subcontract.)

    And AS has been using ETOPS B738s to Hawaii from SEA, WS (WestJet) has been flying its B737-700/800s slightly further starting in YYC (or YVR), though with restricted loads, and this summer from YYT to DUB. (WS will be getting some 767s next year to handle these routes more economically.)

  8. I’m not sure who is saying they know more than American on this in any case, I certainly don’t, I found the move surprising (‘bold’ even per the title!) and identified some of the tradeoffs and things they could think make it worthwhile. It’s interesting to note that they appear to be doing this, it’s unconventional.

  9. I have a friend who works for Virgin America Flight Ops and I was told that they are getting A320 NEO’s 3 of them by the end of the year, as these will be the aircraft they will fly to Hawaii.

    I also welcome the AA planes on the PHX-Hawaii flights as the PMUS 757 are some of the oldest still flying..

  10. Having flown west coast to Hawaii on both AA and UA in the recent past, I think just about any change in aircraft would be welcome. On those flights, you party like it’s 1992-choice of movie? Sure, you can watch the one on the screen at the front of the cabin, or you can choose not to watch it. Food, seats, service, all pretty unimpressive.

    We’ll have to see what AA does with the different aircraft.

  11. @Reese. That is pretty funny and truth to it. But remember that it is a blog. I consider Gary best expert in miles and points. But funny when he takes shots at Peter Greenspun and considers himself a better overall travel expert than Peter. Or criticises and gives advice to the airline executives. Totally out of his game. But it is his blog. Gotta realize that. it is just a blog.

  12. I agree with the sentiment of Reese’s post. Many Flyertalk “experts” and bloggers act seem like they know more than airline professionals. It’s hilarious. I went to one of those brand name business schools and the airlines recruit. These same MBAs build detailed financial models that assist in making aircraft decisions. But somehow travel bloggers and Flyertalk experts think they know better. Hilarious.

  13. The only explanation for someone who capitalizes every word in his post except his own name is Mental Illness.

    Beware flying small planes to Hawaii as you may find yourself in the wind storm like I experienced halfway over on Aloha out of Burbank to HNL. Some of the worst turbulence ever experienced in 40 years flying with the back of the plane trying to come around in front. HNL was closed so to land to refuel in LiHue the pilot crabbed the jet at a 45 degree angle to runway not telling pax what was happening so it appeared to be about to crash. Many got off and stayed in Kauai.

  14. In an attempt to lighten the comments and not be an expert. I would suggest they just use regional jets with drop tanks 🙂

  15. I live in Hawaii and remember when Aloha pioneered the 737 to the mainland. We were all leery of flying in such an apparently limited plane. Since then, of course, 737s fly every day. I still try to avoid them just because they are so tiny for a long flight. For a blast from the past check out the John Wayne film The High and the Mighty for a reason why you might like a plane with a little more capacity.

  16. The flight across the Atlantic is not NEARLY as long an over water segment as West-Coast to Hawaii. In fact, they are seldom even 120 minutes from an airport (Shannon, Keflavik, Gander or Shannon, Santa Maria, [any airport] in Newfoundland),

    I found it troubling that you would post such misleading information in an otherwise informative article.

    West Coast to Hawaii is, in fact, the longest overwater segment flown anywhere.

  17. @Kilo Sierra I make the point explicitly about proximity to alternate landing locations for transatlantic flights in the post above.

  18. No Kilo Sierra, you are wrong. Several overwater segments are longer than you mooted flight from the U.S. West Coast to Hawaii. Among them are the LAN flight from Santiago de Chile to Easter Isl;and, and the LAN flight from Easter Island to Papeete. Both flights are around 3,000 miles — that’s about 1,000 miles longer than the pipsqueak 2,000 miles from the U.S. West Coast to the erstwhile Sandwich Islands. Think you also might find the Qantas route from Perth to Johannesburg also beggars that.

  19. any reason AA chooses to continue 757s to KOA??? are those still the same old 757s, just w 1 more F seat and an extra legroom area?

    Would a bulkhead aisle on these have > or < 40 " pitch?


  20. FYI, as a retired airline pilot, when you fly from LAX ( not the west coast/SFO…look at a chart/map) to HNL, at the mid point in time, you are the farthest away from land (think alternate airport) of any flight segment in the world. Period. It appears that with the less than 7000 ft runway out of Kahului, Maui, when operating to LAX the A 321 will be payload limited under certain conditions ie; winds/temps/fuel required if an alternate is needed.

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