Auckland Airport's Emporor Lounge
Auckland Airport's Emporor Lounge

There’s plenty of hype and anticipation when a new airline decides to fly to New Zealand – and even more so when the end destination is one as alluring as Hawaii.

Offered the chance to fly on Hawaiian Airlines’ inaugural flight from Auckland to Honolulu on March 14, I cleared my calendar and said: ‘Yes please!’

I bought an extra ticket so my other half could join me, and we flew to Honolulu in first class and home in coach to get the full experience.

The airline promises to ensure your holiday starts the moment you get your ticket, and allows you to sample the sights, sounds and tastes of Hawaii on board, so we couldn’t wait to see what that entailed.

Route: Auckland to Honolulu (and back)

Aircraft: Hawaiian Airlines Airbus A330-200

Flight time: Eight hours, 15 minutes there. Nine hours, 10 minutes back to Auckland.

Check-in: Check-in at Auckland Airport was fast and easy, with no queues at 9pm on a Thursday night.

Lounge: Hawaiian Airlines’ first class passengers get access to the Emperor Lounge at Auckland Airport. The lounge, which opened last year, features modern décor with a green and grey theme, comfy armchairs, wifi, computers, showers (just ask for a shower pack) and a full array of food options.

If we hadn’t eaten dinner, we could have tucked into hot dishes like lamb rogan josh, chicken kofte with mango chutney or zucchini fritters. But I stuck to the dessert cabinet, with brownie and a cheese platter. We could help ourselves to juice, beer, wine or whiskey. Staff were exceptionally friendly and came round offering mini tubs of Kapiti ice-cream – how could I refuse?

Punctuality: Hawaiian Airlines holds the title of the most punctual airline in America, so it’s reasonable to hope that you’ll be on time, if not early. Our flight up to Honolulu departed on time at 11.55pm and arrived about half an hour early, at 9.15am local time, while the returning sector took off at 1.45pm and landed at 9.55pm - bang on schedule.

Seat and cabin design: The wide-bodied A330 has capacity for 294 seats and is the newest aircraft in Hawaiian Airlines’ fleet. All the AKL-HNL flights use this aircraft.

First class seats

- First class : 2-2-2 configuration, with 18 seats.
There’s plenty of legroom between the blue leather seats, with a seat pitch (the distance between any point on one seat to the exact same point as the seat in front) of 44-46 inches and a seat width of 18.5 inches. The seat has a decent recline, but controls are not electronic, and getting the footrest out proved a little awkward. A tray table can be pulled out from one armrest, while the entertainment system pops up from the other.

One bathroom near the cockpit is reserved for business class passengers and crew and there’s refreshing facial mist and sweet-smelling hand cream that you don’t come by in cattle class.

- Coach (economy class): Mostly 2-4-2 configuration.
I was pleasantly surprised at the roominess for economy passengers. I’m not exactly tall, but I didn’t feel cramped as I have on other planes.

The seats are 18 inches wide, not far off the width in first class, and there’s a seat pitch of 31 to 32 inches. The tray tables fold down from the seat in front, and the entertainment screen sits above it. Arm rests fold up – a bonus if you’re lucky enough to have a free seat next to you. A packet containing your pillow and a light blanket was on each seat before boarding.

The view back in coach

Baggage allowance: The generous baggage allowance on Hawaiian Airlines is a real plus. For travel between New Zealand and the US, passengers in both first class and coach can check in two bags weighing up to 32 kg each, for no extra charge. Shoppers rejoice! For domestic flights within the US, fees start at about US$17 per bag.

Each passenger can also take one carry-on bag, weighing up to 11.5kg.

On-board entertainment: Every seat on the A330 has a touch-screen entertainment system – either on the seat in front of you in coach, or popping out of your armrest in first class – as well as a USB port. First class passengers get unlimited access to new release movies, like Argo and Lincoln, while back in economy you can swipe your credit card and pay US$8 per film.

In coach there were still seven movies we could watch without paying extra as well as plenty of TV programmes – Lie to Me, Prison Break, New Girl etc - and games to keep you occupied.

Service: Flight attendants greeted us with wide smiles and were friendly, efficient and professional. In first class they introduced themselves and offered to take passengers’ coats. The level of service in economy was equally impressive, just minus the frills. Receiving a fresh, sweet-smelling lei on arrival at Honolulu is also a nice touch.

Food and beverages: Award-winning chef Chai Chaowasaree has designed first class and coach menus using traditional island flavours.

- First class: Despite a departure time just shy of midnight, a full dinner was served within two hours of take-off. For entrees we had the option of a cheese plate or a warm potato soup and for mains we could choose two from a list of three. I went for pumpkin ravioli with a sage butter cream sauce, and the catch of the day, with choi sum and scallions. The meals were well presented and full of flavour – but the quantity probably more than I needed at 2am New Zealand time.

First class meals: Pumpkin ravioli, left, and veal medallion

My husband went for the veal medallion, and says it was his favourite. Dessert was a scrumptious lemon cheesecake that I sadly couldn’t finish.

I didn’t see a wine list, but the Californian chardonnay I was offered was delicious.

Breakfast again was plentiful, and served a few hours before landing. This time there were no choices – a platter arrived in front of us laden with fresh fruit, yoghurt, a muffin, a crab-filled omelette and a tasty savoury potato hash mix with onion and capsicum.

- Coach: In economy class there were no decisions to be made. Unless you’d requested a vegetarian meal, you were given a dish of local BBQ chicken served with steamed rice and tomato mango salsa, along with a Caesar salad and super-moist banana pineapple cake. It was great airline fare, with the chicken lovely and tender and the salad fresh and crisp.

The meal in economy class proved tasty

The second food service was a snack box containing a ham and cheese roll, shortbread and some delicious Hawaiian chocolate-coated macadamia nuts.

The first drinks and a snack pack were served within an hour of take-off and top-ups came regularly. Between food services, passengers could head to the galley to ask for another drink but flight attendants regularly walked the aisles with a jug of chilled water and plastic cups for anyone feeling parched.

Flight frequency: Hawaiian Airlines flies between Auckland and Honolulu three times a week, departing Auckland on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11.55pm, arriving about 9.45am on the same day local time.

The airline is adding a fourth flight between the destinations during the peak travel period of September 19 to October 11.

The verdict: If you’re heading to Hawaii, or planning a stopover on the way to mainland America, Hawaiian Airlines is a great option. The food, service and seat comfort in economy was up there with the best I’ve experienced on international flights. And as promised, the airline does bring you the sights, sounds and tastes of Hawaii on board. If you can sleep on planes you should get in a decent few hours on the red-eye flight up to Honolulu, and touching down before 10am you have the whole day to explore, go shopping or hit the beach.

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