In case you’d never given a thought to the Boeing 757, we are airline enthusiasts, and we hadn’t either. But several things caused us to take note and realize just how significant a role this one plane played in the Hawaii travel we know today. Here’s why.
757 opened direct routes to neighbor islands.
The 757, affectionately referred to as the “flying pencil” due to its length, was certified for ETOPS-180 in 1992. It is that certification that allowed it to fly to Hawaii. Before that, flights to Hawaii were onboard 3-engine and 4-engine jets, followed by the larger twin-engine Boeing 767, which was certified first and began Hawaii flights in 1989.
There were multiple problems with those larger predecessor planes, such as DC-10 (Hawaiian) and L-1011 (Delta). They were too large to be operated successfully into Hawaii’s neighbor islands, except Maui. The same was true of 767, which as a side-note, can land and take off even on the short runway at Lihue Kauai. But it cannot do that at full capacity.
Routes to Kauai and Kona are considered “thin routes” with significantly less traffic demand than those to the two primary Hawaii airports at Honolulu and Kahului, Maui. A different aircraft type was needed to fly not only those routes to the neighbor islands but also to serve routes into the two major Hawaii airports that don’t require such large and expensive-to-operate jets.
Three airlines turned Hawaii flying upside down.
The three companies are all legacy, which, while still important, aren’t as in focus as the triad of Alaska, Hawaiian, and Southwest. The three are American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and United Airlines. All three became operators of 757 fleets to Hawaii, and there began a new focus starting in the 1990s on direct flights that bypassed Honolulu. These airlines started routes that had never made sense before, including ones from further afield. Denver to Kauai and Denver to Kona are two such routes operated by United Airlines, which still uses 757 for them. Many other routes also made sense, such as the Delta flight on 757 from Seattle to Honolulu, which also still flies to this day.
In quick order, the Boeing 757-200 became the Hawaii workhorse plane.
The plane was much like a stretched version of the Boeing 727 that first came to market in 1982. It features oversized, powerful engines and has always been highly regarded by pilots. Inside, there was the now familiar 2×2 seating in first and 3×3 seating in economy. United later fitted the cabin with far more comfortable Polaris business suites. Jeff used to fly back and forth on the United 757 to Kauai, and he reports that for him, it was always a very uncomfortable plane, both in economy and in the older first-class cabins. But it got the job done.
The original first-class leather seats were odd because you always slipped down in them. Economy was tight, although tight has since been redefined by the Airbus A321neo fleet operated by American Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines. The original first-class seats were 20″ wide with a 38″ pitch, and the economy seats were 17″ wide with anywhere from 31 to 36 inches of pitch. When UAL added Economy Plus, there was 34″ between the rows, which helped. The 757 was typically configured for about 200 passengers.
At one time, American Airlines had more of these planes than anyone. Yet they decided to retire the 757-200 fleet in 2019, which was completed in early 2020. Delta and United operate them to this day, although plans are in the works for them to retire in the not distant future. Indeed the end of an era.
Move over 757. The arrival of 737-800 and Airbus A32x.
American has gone to flying mostly A321 aircraft on Hawaii routes, except those where they still fly widebody planes such as the Boeing 777.
Even Delta and United are retreating from these aging planes, and the end isn’t far off. It won’t be long until it is rare to see one in Hawaii.
ETOPS-180 comes to 737.
In 1999, the NextGen Boeing 737 received ETOPS-180 certification. That meant that on all but the longest 757 routes to Hawaii, the 737 would be a lower-cost replacement. And so it went that the 737 cannibalized most 757 routes. Keep in mind, however, that the 757 can fly nearly 1,000 miles further than the 737. But when looking at the most in-demand routes to the islands, a 737 can hit almost all targets within an hour or so from the west coast. It is interesting to note that the most extended range 737MAX7 is capable of nearly the same distance as the 757.
The 737 is, of course, the most successful airliner ever built, of which about 5,000 planes have been produced. By comparison, only about 1,000 757 planes, in two variants, were ever made.
Hawaiian Air fleet prevented direct-to-island flights until A321neo.
Hawaiian strangely stayed with a model that did not permit direct and thin route flying to the neighboring islands. Their fleet of DC-10s, which morphed into 767s, and later A330, were not suited for these routes. So for many years, Hawaiian allowed other airlines with these 757 and 737 fleets to take that business. And take it they did.
Enters Alaska Airlines, then Southwest Airlines.
Alaska started flying 737 aircraft to Hawaii in 2007. Launching first from their home base of the Pacific Northwest, they expanded rapidly, with limited competition. They soon started flying to many California markets in which they were growing. That model is much the same as deployed by Southwest Airlines, which joined the Hawaii party with their 737-800 and 737MAX fleet starting in 2019.
Realizing that there was no turning back Hawaii visitors’ desires to fly directly to and from their Hawaiian island of choice, Hawaiian airlines acquired a fleet of Airbus A321neo narrow-body planes, which started arriving in 2018. For the first time, they have successfully competed on these popular, narrow Hawaii routes first opened by the Boeing 757.