Hawaiian Air says seat assignments are all about weight distribution and safety
Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga has urged Hawaiian Airlines to reevaluate its policy for flights to and from American Samoa, for which passengers have to stand in line for check-in bags and separately also stand in line “to secure a seat assignment”.
In response, Hawaiian Airlines president and chief executive officer, Mark Dunkerley explained that the “new procedure” is for “safety” reasons.
In his Aug. 30th letter, the governor informed Dunkerley of “issues that have caused an uproar among our people” saying that he is not sure at this time whether the airline’s newly instituted practice requiring “our people to check-in their bags at the counter and then stand in line at the gate to secure a seat assignment is permanent.”
“If so, I would humbly urge that you revisit this policy because it is conjuring unpleasant comments which question Hawaiian Airlines' commitment to improving air transportation services to American Samoa,” Lolo wrote.
“As you well know this is a persistent element of frustration over the obvious lack of recourse when new practices implemented appear insensitive to the dignity of our people,” he said.
According to Lolo, “We have accepted the implied notion that many Samoans may be physically large in build which supposedly prompted and justified the policy of weight distribution and abated any pre-issuance of seats.”
Now, he said, passengers have to stand in line to check bags at the check-in counter and then stand in another line again to obtain a seat at the gate.
“Our people are perplexed why the flights to American Samoa are being singled out as this process is not practiced for any of Hawaiian Airlines' other flights,” he said, and noted that many flights show large passengers being seated next to each other and smaller — physically — passengers are seated with a blocked seat between them.
“We have quietly acquiesced to all of Hawaiian Airlines' initiatives to maximize its profits,” Lolo informed Dunkerley. “On behalf of my people, I am asking that Hawaiian Airlines please re-evaluate the necessity of making travel to and from our territory more difficult than need be.”
Lolo also “recognized with appreciation” Dunkerley’s “commitment to ensure that our patients are transported to access medical treatment not available in American Samoa.”
In his Sept. 21st reply letter, Dunkerley first thanked Lolo for acknowledging the airlines’ efforts in transporting patients for medical needs off island.
As for the issue raised by the governor, Dunkerley said he shares Lolo’s “frustration with the procedure... imposed on our Pago Pago travelers”, adding that “none of us” at Hawaiian “are enthusiastic about having to follow the procedures” for the Pago flights.
“In addition to the sensitivities you reference, with which we empathize, it adds a step in our boarding process,” he wrote, and noted that this means Hawaiian needs more manpower to handle a Pago flight than an equivalent flight to another destination.
“The reason we are following this new procedure is safety,” he said and explained that when the carrier plans a flight, it makes an assumption on the weight of passengers and their carry-on baggage, which determines how much fuel is needed, including an added reserve.
“If a flight systemically burns more fuel than estimated in the flight plan, it indicates that the assumed passengers and baggage weight are too low.”
“In this circumstance, we are obliged to conduct a ‘weight survey’ where, over a period of time, we weigh passengers and their carry-on baggage on the flight which burns more fuel than planned,” he said.
The airline has done this not only for the Pago flights, but for other destinations as well, he said. Normally, if the results of the survey are a modest increase in assumed passenger weight, Hawaiian simply loads fuel on the flight.
In the case of Pago Pago, the airline’s airport survey revealed the need to add 30 pounds to the assumed weight for each passenger — this number excludes carry-on bags, he explained.
However, this increase was sufficiently large to create another problem, he said and explained that each aircraft has a maximum weight that can be supported across a row of seats to ensure that the floor will support the seats in the event of an accident.
He said adding 30 pounds to the assumed weight of each passenger on Pago flights “meant that a row of seats in economy [class], the maximum allowable weight was exceeded if every seat was filled by an adult.”
This left Hawaiian with a “stark choice — either we block one seat per row in economy or ensure that at least one seat per row either remained empty or was filled by a child, whose weights are assumed to be much lower,” he said.
“We did not want to block one seat in each row on every flight because that would have had the double consequences of denying American Samoa some of the seats that we currently sell in the community and, as a result, increasing the costs of the seats that remained to be sold,” he explained.
Instead the airline calculated that “we could maximize the number of passengers we carry by juggling the seating arrangements on the airplane such that in every row in economy either there is an empty seat or a seat is occupied by a child,” he continued.
“It’s this ‘juggling process' which is the extra step we employ on our Pago Pago flights,” said Dunkerley, and it’s a “cumbersome process that we don’t enjoy implementing any more than our travelers like being subjected to.”
“We regret the sensitivities that this exposes and we mean no disrespect,” he informed the governor. “But we must operate in accordance with the safety rules of the FAA and therefore feel that we are stuck with the current system for the time being.”
Dunkerley also shared with the governor that the airline has asked Boeing — the maker of the 767 aircraft which the carrier uses on the Pago flights — and Airbus, maker of Hawaiian’s other long haul aircraft, whether the floor strength limitations can be increased safely.
“We hope that they will be able to give us latitude to dispense with the current limitations,” he wrote, and thanked the governor for reaching out on this and “all matters of interest to the residents of your islands.