4 October 2008: MSN-MSP-HNL-LIH on Northwest and Hawaiian, First/World Business Class.
This is an admittedly-lengthy trip report, the primary goal of which is to compare and contrast Northwest’s WBC service to Hawai’i, and their domestic-F service on the return. There have been a number of recent posts with questions about the Hawai’i flights, particularly on Flyertalk, so I hope the level of detail helps answer some of those questions. I included some relevant photos, but since photos of the aircraft and their interiors abound on this site already, I avoided posting those.
NW 923 MSN-MSP, A319
After a relatively simple check-in and security process at Madison, my partner and I waited with friends before boarding our A319 to Minneapolis. We had a full load, but boarding was efficient. There were preflight drinks, and the FAs offered the full array of beverages, not just the usual water/OJ. We were underway ahead of schedule for a scenic, 40-min flight to the Twin Cities. More beverages were offered, as were granola bars. The A319 seats in F were reasonably comfortable, although not as comfortable as CO’s leather seats in F. They sure beat some of the older A320s that have no back or neck support. Nonetheless, one of the perks of flying NW out of Madison is getting to take these short, “commuter” flights on comfortable mainline aircraft, rather than RJs. A short taxi into the F concourse, and we made a brief visit to the Worldclub before our next flight.
Since we were transferring from the F to the G concourse, we used the mega-Worldclub on that side of the airport. It’s adequate, but the smaller, cozier one on the other side of the airport is highly preferable, as well as a great location from which to spot planes.
NW 809 MSP-HNL, A330-300
I was very excited for my first A330 flight, as well as my first World Business Class flight, and this did not disappoint. My partner and I were particularly curious, as we have been frequent BusinessFirst travelers on Continental, with which we have been very impressed. This flight was a very pleasant surprise.
We had seats 1A/B, chosen based on SeatGuru and trip reports. They had fantastic legroom for us both, with me at 6’, and my partner at 6’2”. The initial impression of the seats was consistent with the many trip reports I’ve read…very hard and uncomfortable. With a little playing-around while at the gate and during taxi, especially with the lumbar and thigh settings (extending the thigh support forward), the seats went from uncomfortable to VERY comfortable. Pre-departure drinks were offered, including mai-tais, though we opted for water. Dinner entrée orders were taken at the gate, and options were stuffed chicken breast or red snapper. We both chose the red snapper, which was surprisingly good, and it will be illustrated and discussed below.
Takeoff was very quiet and smooth in the A330, perhaps more so than the other widebodies I’ve been on. Within about 20 minutes after takeoff, hot towels were presented and drinks were served, along with a ramekin of nuts. Our super-friendly FA introduced herself. She and the equally-friendly FA working the other aisle wore orchids in their hair and flower-print aprons over their uniforms. The lavatories in WBC had a white towel with fresh orchids arranged around the Aveda items on the counter. Little touches like that, as silly as they sound, make a big difference in the atmosphere and mood on board! The purser was more efficient than she was warm, but she actually warmed-up later in the flight. More details about that later.
The meal began about 45-60 minutes into the flight. It began with a salad of greens, tomatoes, roasted corn and onions. The salad was fantastic and was dinner-plate size, presented on a tray with the cutlery. With it was a choice of olive oil and balsamic vinegar or passionfruit-poppyseed dressing. Warm bread was served with the salad, along with the beverages of choice (chardonnay and a glass of water in my case; both were refilled constantly until I requested her to stop). The FA did a fantastic job with the family with two children in the two rows behind us, crouching down to talk to the children at eye-level (very polite), and suggesting to them and their parents that the WBC food might not be too interesting and offering to give the children the more kid-appropriate stuff from the coach BOB menu. One child took her up on it, and the other asked to have the salad and chicken. The family seemed nice and mild-mannered to begin with, and the FA really took the time to look after them on the long flight.
My partner and I usually eat at a similar pace, and on long flights, we really like to eat slowly and stretch the meal out; after all, we’re gonna be sitting there for a long time! This was one of the rare occasions where he really outpaced me, and the FA was gracious enough to ask whether we wanted to be served together or individually when ready for the next course. We opted to each go at our own pace, and when his fish entrée was served, I was so impressed by the aroma that I wolfed down the rest of my salad in order to get mine!
I ordered the fish because it was the healthy option, not because it sounded exciting, but it was probably the best airline meal I’ve ever had. This includes some pretty impressive meals on CO transatlantic flights. A large serving of fish with rice had a sweet/spicy sauce with curry and currants reminiscent of a chutney. That combination of flavors is something you either love or hate, and we both loved it. Most people ordered the chicken, and that looked good, too. Refills of wine, water and bread continued. The FAs kept a very strong presence in the cabin, so that if we needed anything, we merely had to look up. I never even learned where the call-button was located. It can be a long flight when the FAs do that disappearing-act after serving the meal; I was glad to see that was not part of the plan for this flight. By this point, the seat was slightly reclined, leg rest up, and it was feeling very comfortable, despite a negative first-impression.
My partner was ready for dessert ahead of me and was given the choice of mango sorbet or macadamia nut ice cream. He went for the ice cream, which he devoured, despite our plan to try to skip dessert. By the time I finished my fish, there was no sorbet left, so I had the ice cream, too, and it was fantastic. The flight was a little bumpy through dinner, and the remains of the lunch-service were cleared away as we were nearing the west coast.
As dessert was served by the two WBC cabin FAs, the purser came around with coffee. She seemed a bit abrupt at first, especially when we overheard her asking one couple, “Do you want coffee, yes or no?!” A bit shocked, we commented to our wonderful FA about how great the meal service was, and how much we were enjoying her friendliness, but how surprised we were with the purser’s tone. The FA replied that this purser can unfortunately be that way sometimes because she is so hands-on and works throughout the coach and WBC cabins during the whole flight. In a situation like that, efficiency sometimes trumps friendliness. Having lived in the Midwest for years, I can see that personality trait come out a lot, but it can be frustrating when expecting a polished customer-service experience. Our FA did state that this purser is her favorite one to work with, and that our opinion of her would probably change as the flight continued. She was right.
After that conversation, our wonderful FA came to our seats and told us she was going to the rest area for her break, and that the purser would be looking after us for the next few hours. She poured us fresh glasses of water and made sure we didn’t need anything before leaving. We figured it would be a looooong trip across the Pacific before she returned. Fortunately, we were mistaken.
Did we play with the AVOD? No! We played with the seats! We played with every button and feature, the lumbar support, massage function, the reclined position, the flat position. We both agreed with the many posters on this forum who have stated that the fully-reclined position is more comfortable than the flat postion for napping and movie-watching. Of course, the instant I have the seat completely flat and am struggling to figure out how to get it back up, and my partner’s seat is moving like an amusement-park ride, that purser came by, looked at us both, cracked a smile, and said, “You look like you’re playing with the seats like two little boys!” Still in that unrecoverable flat position, which makes you feel like you’re on the floor, I replied, “Is there a button to get me back up out of the baggage hold?” She had a good laugh. From then on, she was smiling and as friendly to us and the other passengers as can be. Sometimes people just need an ice-breaker, I guess.
Like the other FA’s, the purser was constantly in the cabin, refilling water glasses, checking on the kids (the real ones, not us two adult-kids playing with the seats), and offering snacks. The lavatories were freshened-up several times during the flight. I liked the fact that we were given water in glasses (actually large plastic tumblers), rather than bottles, and I imagine it’s a lot cheaper for the airline, too. That’s a win-win cost-saving move. At one point, I told her I wanted her to know as purser that she had a wonderful team working with her, and that her own hard work and skill at managing her team was evident and made for a very pleasant experience that would bring us back to Northwest for our international travel in the future. She thanked us for our comments, wrote down the name of our FA and asked us to please write our positive feedback to customer service via the website, as the customer-compliments would get back to her. We agreed to do so (and wrote a glowing review of both FAs and the purser who served us), and she came by later to give us some coupons worth several thousand Worldperks miles. She and our FA later offered us a bottle of champagne to take with us after the flight, but we declined their generous offer, as it wouldn’t be practical to have that with us on our travels.
We probably spent more time playing with the seats and then taking naps than using the AVOD, but we both did play with it a little. It’s a good system, though I found Continental’s a little more user-friendly. The touch-screen is convenient, as it reduces going back-and-forth with the handset, but it was sometimes temperamental in the way that touchscreens can be. I did have time for one short movie before the pre-arrival snack.
Pre-arrival snack was served about 60-90 minutes before landing and consisted of a plate of cheeses, fruit, cucumbers, ham, turkey and bread, along with a slice of lemon tart, all presented together on a tray. It was very tasty and was perfect to keep us from getting too hungry before dinner, given the long travel day and significant time difference. After the snack, and a couple more visits to our seats from the purser and our FA, now back from her break, Mauna Loa came into view as my first sighting of the Hawaiian islands. What a massive volcano. We had a lovely, scenic descent and landing, flying westbound over downtown Honolulu and then turning eastbound over the southwestern edge of Oahu to fly the approach into HNL.
Overall, this was a fantastic flight, and I’m very surprised to say it was on par in many respects with our great experiences on Continental’s BusinessFirst, even for the “watered-down” WBC service to Hawaii. Based on this experience, we would not hesitate to use Northwest’s WBC for international flights in the future.
Two days after our arrival in Hawai’i, we did write to NW customer service via the website with details about the wonderful service we received. This is actually the first time we’ve been motivated to do so. We received the automated reply within a few hours that our “concerns” were important to them (no guesses about what kind of letters they usually get). In about two days, we got a very nicely-written email back thanking us for our compliments and stating that our comments would be passed through the chain-of-command, with the FA ultimately being commended by the airline.
HA 239 HNL-LIH, B717
After such a lengthy flight to HNL, we decided to walk all the way down to the inter-island terminal, rather than take the Wiki-Wiki Shuttle. Visitors to HNL should note that if you ignore the signs directing you to the Wiki-Wiki Shuttle to the inter-island terminal, you can keep walking in the direction of increasing gate numbers, and ultimately you get there. If you take the shuttle, you have to go back through security; if you walk, you remain in the “sterile” area. It’s far preferable to walk!
Hawaiian Air prefers that passengers check-in again with the HA gate agent, even if the connecting airline already issued boarding passes. We did so and decided to sit in the gate area and watch all the inter-island planes go by. HA made several announcements that our flight would be delayed due to a late inbound aircraft. After all these announcements, I figured I’d check with the gate agent to see if it would be better to hop on the next flight, 30 minutes later, if my flight was going to be significantly delayed. He replied that the delay was 10 minutes (it ended up being 20 when all was said-and-done). Why even announce it? By EWR standards, that’s like leaving early!
Boarding was a bit chaotic. The gate agents apparently let a couple of standby passengers on, inadvertently bumping ticketed passengers, and the supervisor came on to tell the gate agents to remove the standby people (who were very agreeable about the whole thing) and let the correct people back on. In the process, the FA in the F cabin tries to violently cram one of the passengers’ carry on into the overhead (seriously just like the caricatures you see in TV commercials), and we begin to worry with our cameras up there. My partner’s small bag containing his iPod, noise-cancelling headphones, etc, falls to the floor. The FA tries to grab it and toss it back up there, and my partner says, “No, I’ll inspect that for damage. I’ll take our carry-on and our camera-bag, too, and check those.” The FA’s face dropped, and he profusely apologized. Fortunately, there was no damage, but the whole thing was quite foolish on his part. All he had to do was ask us if we’d put our bags under the seats, and we’d have happily done so. Instead, we unhappily did so in order to protect our belongings from someone who should be starring in a Samsonite luggage commercial! (Actually, if anyone sees the new FedEx/Kinkos commercial with the FA cramming bags into the overhead, I think the person who wrote that commercial was sitting in our cabin! Watch it on you-tube!)
There are only 8 F seats on HA’s 717, but they are quite comfortable. All my prior 717 experiences have been on Midwest. Drink orders were taken before takeoff, and after a quick taxi, we made a quick takeoff to the East, turning to the South before reaching the end of the runway, and then west toward Kaua’i. A glass of guava juice later (and another two apologies…OK the first one really was fine…maybe we looked a bit cross since we were pretty tired by this point in our journey), we were landing at Lihu’e. LIH is definitely a relaxed operation. With three HA planes landing within about 10 minutes of each other, bags from all three were going on the same belt, so baggage claim was semi-chaotic. Ultimately, all our bags made it, so we got our car and carefully drove our tired selves to the hotel.
We spent a few days on the south side of Kaua’i at the Sheraton, and another few days in Princeville at the Westin (we’ll have to check out the Princeville Hotel once it is reborn in the spring as a St. Regis). I don’t typically but much hotel detail in trip reports, but let me know if you want more info on these or on the Fairmont on the Big Island, and I’ll be happy to post on this thread or via private message. In short, the Westin was good, the Sheraton was very good (I think Starwood plans on it being the other way around, though), and the Fairmont was HEAVEN.
10 October 2008: LIH-HNL-KOA on Hawaiian in F
HA 344/188, B717
After an amazing week on Kaua’i, it was back to LIH to move on to week two and more new adventures. Consistent with its relaxed nature, check-in at LIH was “Aloha-casual.” I don’t think the agent ever checked our IDs. We bought F tickets because, at the time we booked (just before Aloha’s sad demise), F was only $20 more than Y for our one-way. We were invited to use Hawaiian’s lounge after clearing security, but we chose to sit at the gate and watch the airplanes (OK, not a ton of action at LIH). Another slight delay of about 20min on our inbound aircraft, and we boarded and were off. After 20min and a glass of guava juice, we were back on the ground in HNL. It was a very pleasant flight. Same for the 35min flight to Kona. Wow, with the lava-flows at and around the airport, landing at KOA really does feel like landing on the moon! Kiluea’s activity resulted in a great deal of haze, so there weren’t too many good views of the island on the approach. There is definitely a startle-factor when first driving out of the airport and heading north on Highway 19. At first, the lava and dried grasses seem barren, but after getting a good understanding of the island, they become more intriguing and beautiful every day.
17-18 October 2008: KOA-SEA-MSP-MSN on Northwest in (domestic) F
NW 804 KOA-SEA, 757-300
We had such a beautiful time in Hawai’i that, for the first time ever on vacation, we had no desire whatsoever to go home! Usually after 7-10 days, we’re still having plenty of fun but start to miss home. Not so! Of course, the one time you WANT a flight to be cancelled, it’s perfectly on-time!
There have been many threads on airliners.net and flyertalk.com (both excellent sites) about the WBC vs. domestic-F flights to Hawai’i, with the WBC flights being the clear favorite. So why on earth would I book us on this routing? Put simply, at the end of the day, convenience trumps everything else in travel. I’d have loved to do NW808 HNL-MSP, but it would have required a much earlier departure and would have added about 4-5 hours to our trip, requiring a 4-hour connection in MSP. Besides, I figured this would give us a good opportunity to compare them head-to-head on this forum! After our excellent experience on NW809, however, I was definitely second-guessing myself.
The 9pm departure from KOA allowed us to enjoy our final day in Hawai’i and have a stupendous dinner at Alan Wong’s Hualalai Grille at the Four Seasons before checking in. This way, we could skip the meal on the flight and hopefully just to do sleep for the 5.5 hour flight to SEA instead.
We were advised to check in 2 hours before the flight, in order to clear security and agricultural inspection, especially since most mainland-bound 757s depart KOA about the same time. We got there 1:45 before the flight, and within 15 minutes, we were inside the gate area! We sat in that fun, outdoor gate-area, and sure-enough, the security lines swelled after we got through. Checking in early was probably a good idea, after all. We got to watch our 757-300 come in from Maui, where flight 804 originates, and park among 757-200s from AA, DL and US, and a HA 717. Boarding was efficient, even for a 757-300, and we departed about 15 minutes behind schedule. FA’s took meal orders and offered pre-flight mai-tais and other drinks. The flight was listed as a “snack” flight, and options were a hot sandwich or a salad of some kind.
The safety demo was done via the LCD video monitors, and we made a smooth takeoff to the South, then turned north, as we sadly said, “Aloha, a hu’i hou” to Hawai’i. From our seats, 1A/B, we watched Mau’i pass by, hoping it would not be long before we return.
Just like on the outbound flight, I chose seats 1A/B on the return based on both trip reports and on seatguru.com. These were definitely the roomiest seats in the house. There is a foot-well cut out of the bulkhead for 1A/B, but not for 1C/D. That, combined with no one reclining into you, makes it about as comfortable as it’s going to get. Seatguru says there’s only one window at this row, but it’s really 1.5 windows with the seat upright, and 2 windows with the seat reclined. The seat was comfortable enough, but one major disappointment was the very limited degree of recline. I realize we were spoiled on the A330, but these seats seriously only reclined about 4 inches! The lack of foot support created a pressure-point on the thigh. Nonetheless, I got comfortable, wrapped up in a couple of blankets, and shut my eyes, opening them briefly only two times before making landfall in Washington. For not being terribly comfortable, I have to admit that was the best sleep I ever got on an airplane!
My eyes opened once because of the smell of food. I didn’t see the meals go by, but my partner said they looked and smelled pretty good. He described the meals as a warm sandwich or a dinner-plate-sized salad presented on a tray with dessert and condiments, similar to NW’s typical lunch service. Guess that’s what “snack” means. We were, of course, stuffed from Alan Wong’s amazing cuisine, and I was more interested in sleep than eating. The light from the LCD monitor, now showing a movie followed by TV shows, as well as the galley light, were a little bothersome, so I took my second blanket and wrapped it around my eyes like a bandana, draping the rest around my shoulders and torso. That worked for the rest of the flight, though a prepared passenger would have thought to bring an eye-shade. It’s a shame that there’s no amenity kit, even though it’s the length of some transatlantic flights, but that’s just the way it is.
My eyes opened a second time because of mid-flight cackling from the galley. About 5 of the FA’s were in the front galley cheering and laughing like they were at a nightclub! While I really want them to enjoy their jobs, and while I was impressed that they were all chipper during the few interactions I had with them, I felt this was really inconsiderate to the folks who were trying to sleep. Whether because or in spite of glares from both of us (and probably other passengers), the party broke up, and I got back to sleep.
The captain greeted us with a “good morning” message from the cockpit as we were descending through 11,000 feet into Seattle. We landed at 5:30am, after 5.5 hours in the air, and were asked to disembark even if continuing to MSP, as the plane would be cleaned and serviced. It smelled much fresher when we re-boarded, so I’m glad they did that.
We had the dubious distinction of being the first to enter the WorldClub that morning and woke up to coffee and orange juice. It was nice to have the chance to freshen ourselves up a bit.
NW 804 (continued) SEA-MSP, 757-300
We attempted to re-board the same plane, having seats 1A/B reserved from KOA all the way through to MSP. The gate agent tried to scan our boarding passes and said someone else was in our seats and asked us to report to the gate counter. I replied that there better *not* be. The gate counter agent said there was no problem, we were really in our reserved seats, and that to tell agent “X” when scanning our boarding-passes that agent “Y” said it’s OK. A trivial aggravation, but one’s fuse tends to be short when overtired like that.
We returned to 1A/B, welcomed by a new, fairly friendly crew. We settled back in and were offered preflight drinks. I do like how NW will usually serve whatever you want preflight, rather than just one or two options. What I want is usually water anyway, but it’s the thought that counts. We had a nearly-on-time departure out of SEA, with a smooth takeoff about 20min behind schedule and stunning views of downtown and the mountains on the climb. Breakfast was served about 30min into the flight, consisting of NW’s usual eggs or cereal. We both had the eggs, which consisted of a ham-and-cheese-omelet, sausage, potatoes, a bowl of fruit, yogurt and a warm croissant (or raspberry brioche). In all, a filling breakfast that’s way more than I normally eat, but very convenient for a long travel day; neither of us felt hungry again until dinner.
Throughout the flight, the FA was reasonably attentive but clutzy, dropping several food/beverage items in the aisle. Once, when trying to break up a bag of ice in the galley (making such a racket it sounded like he was performing heavy-maintenance on the airplane), we saw him using a full bottle of wine, grasping the wine-bottle by the neck and whacking it into the bag of ice to break it up. On safety grounds, let alone on mess-making grounds, I would not recommend doing that. You should have seen all the bubbles in the bottle of wine; it looked carbonated by the time he was done with it!
A couple of rounds of drinks (with snacks offered), and our flight of only 2:30 was inbound to MSP.
NW 1048 MSP-MSN, DC9-50
With only a short connection in MSP, we decided to forego the lounge and walk to the gate, bypassing the moving walkways in order to get some exercise after so many hours of inactivity. Boarding was called about 20min early, and we were taxiing at our departure time. Preflight drinks were offered at the gate.
DC9 takeoffs are such an exhilarating experience! Far from the smooth refinement of a 757 takeoff (let alone an A330), this is a raw, testosterone-sponsored, power-laden catapult into the air. With takeoff to the South at MSP and landing to the South at MSN, our 30min flight was reminiscent of the inter-island HA flights (except for fall foliage replacing blue water). Despite a few bumps on the way up, it was a smooth flight to MSN and an easy conclusion to a long, smooth journey.
Overall, I was impressed with NW and would definitely use them for Hawai’i service again. The WBC service is far superior to the domestic-F service, and if scheduling permits, I’d try to stick to the WBC flights whenever possible. Despite the clear advantages WBC has over the 757 flights, I don’t think it would have been worth going out of my way or adding hours to my journey, so I do feel that the 757 flights are worth taking when a convenient itinerary favors them.
I hope this lengthy trip report was worth the read, and I’ll be happy to reply to any questions or comments.