October 28, 2012 was unfortunately one of the biggest let-downs for me in the history of my 20+ years of global flying.
I flew from Chicago to Manila, Philippines last week and had the privilege of flying the Boeing 787 Dreamliner on All Nippon Airways (ANA) on the outbound flights, from Seattle to Tokyo. I even had a nice bonus of being upgraded from Tokyo to Manila on ANA to Business Class, which was a treat (more information to come on the in-flight experience in later posts).
The return journey was originally designed to allow me to fly the “Island Hopper” back to the US from Manila. I was to fly on United Airlines #184 from Manila to Guam, then on United #172 from Guam to Honolulu, then back to the U.S.
United #172 is a unique route. It is operated as a “direct” route from Guam to Honolulu, but makes 5 scheduled stops thrice-weekly in 5 Islands throughout the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, including Chuuk International Airport (TKK), Pohnpei International Airport (PNI) on Pohnpei Island, Kosrae International Airport (KSA), Bucholz Army Airfield located on Kwajalein Island on the Kwajalein Atoll, Marshal Islands (KWA), and Amata Kabua International Airport located on Marshall Islands International Airport (MAJ).
The routing for United flight 172, operating thrice weekly (Kosrae is only operated twice weekly; on Wednesdays UA172 flies straight from PNI to KWA.
These flights were absorbed by United after merging with Continental Airlines in 2010. However, Continental Micronesia was the actual subsidiary carrier which operated these routes, based out of Antonio B. Won Pat International airport in Guam. The airline was established by Continental in May 1968 as Air Micronesia, which was referred to by nickname “Air Mike.” Once United merged with Continental, the airline lost its call sign and became part of United Airlines.
The 5-stop Island Hopper route flies 4,300 miles in each direction, and the entire journey lasts, on average, approximately 14 hours and 10 minutes. Special requirements on this route entail staffing an extra pilot, an extra flight attendant, a mechanic, and extra spare parts in the event of mechanical failure. Allegedly, these routes are quite profitable due to mail and cargo carried, as well as little to no competition on these routes.
Timing wise-, the flights are unique, since you cross the international date line in each direction. Eastbound flights leave Guam early in the morning (between 6-8 AM) and arrive in Honolulu the same day, except 4 hours earlier, around 2-4 AM! West-bound journeys depart Honolulu early in the morning, around 5 AM, and arrive in Guam the following afternoon. Of the 6 legs involved in the flight, 5 are under 90 minutes. The longest leg of the flight is between Honolulu and Majuro, which counts at approximately 5 hours.
Passengers are allowed to disembark the plane at every stop except for Kwajalein, allowing passengers to buy souvenirs and take pictures, etc. Allegedly, the facilities and restroom accommodations on the islands are somewhat sub-par, according to reviews.
The in-flight services on the United flight are supposedly very basic: there are no personal TVs nor electrical outlets/AC adapters in either Economy or First Class. There is no EconomyPlus extra leg-room seating available, either. Passengers are served one meal service and a few snacks throughout the entire 14 hour journey, assuming they go the entire way.
Last Sunday, as I was checking-in for my flight from Manila to Guam, we were informed that UA #184 from MNL to GUM had been delayed until the following morning (it was eventually cancelled) due to a medical emergency on the inbound aircraft from Guam. Since Manila is only connected to Guam via a two daily flights, there were no replacement air frames available to send us off to Guam. Either way, the cancellation would result in a missed connection for me at Guam, and my hopes of making my Island Hopper flight became dashed dreams.
It was a crushing blow for me. I was devastated but I also had to figure out a way to get out of Manila. Eventually, I was re-booked to fly back through Tokyo on All Nippon.
There are some trip reports published on this route:
Finally, here is a video on Youtube of the takeoffs and landings on the Island Hopper: