Island Hopper Serves As 'Lifeline' to Remote Communities - United Hub

Short runways, quick turns & wide smiles: Island Hopper serves as ‘lifeline’

By Pete Rapalus, May 23, 2017

There are two ways to get from Honolulu to Guam or vice versa on United — the direct and efficient way or the fun, super-scenic way. A seven-plus-hour nonstop on a Boeing 777 or a four- or five-stop marathon on a Boeing 737 that takes essentially a full day in either direction. For many people living in the Micronesia region of the Western Pacific, the Island Hopper is a lifeline and/or the only reasonable way to get from island to island, and has been a community fixture for nearly half a century.

For aviation aficionados, it's a "bucket list" trip because of its uniqueness and often spectacular scenery — even when many of those tourists complete the trip without ever leaving any of the modest airports along the route. For United flight crews and technicians, the route can be a coveted one in part because of the deep relationships that have built up between our employees and the frequent Hoppers.

Three times a week, Flight 155 departs Guam in the morning, then makes a series of roughly one-hour flights to: Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae (twice a week only), Kwajalein and Majuro, getting to that scenic atoll just after sunset. From there, the plane continues as a five-hour red-eye to Honolulu, then departs the next morning as Flight 154 to do the route in reverse, getting back to Guam just as the sun sets.

The crew aboard Flight 155The crew aboard Flight 155

Except for the Majaro-Honolulu segment, we have a specially trained mechanic, or Field Technical Representative, and a supply of spare parts, on each segment in case something needs to be fixed on any of the islands. Otherwise, customers and crew must wait for a rescue aircraft to be dispatched from Guam — and on some of the islands — as there really isn't much in the way of overnight accommodations.

"It's not unheard of for some of our employees to offer stranded passengers a bed for the night," said Art Day, regional director for the Island Hopper stations and a member of our Micronesia-based staff for 40 years. Fortunately, such instances are rare, thanks to the dedication of the Field Technical Representatives, but also to the special care given to the Island Hopper aircraft by our major maintenance operations in both Guam and Honolulu. Reliability is critical when flying into airports only a few times a week especially without the options we generally associate with most United destinations. "In this part of the world, the Island Hopper is anything but an ordinary flight," Art said. "We are the lifeline to the communities we serve, a large part of their economies are dependent on our service.

Service is essential to these islands

Our employees on the islands know how important our service is to their friends and neighbors. "The Island Hopper means almost everything to us here in the islands," said Chuuk General Manager Anthony Mori. "From taking us to Guam or Honolulu for medical emergencies, to visiting family and friends, to bringing the rest of the world closer to our islands. For Chuuk, especially, the flights are absolutely necessary for our tourism industry. Chuuk Lagoon is one of the world's best scuba diving destinations, but without the Island Hopper, tourism in Chuuk would not succeed."

A United employee greets a customer arriving in Chuuk on Flight 154A United employee greets a customer arriving in Chuuk on Flight 154

"I think I know all the local customers, those who get on or get off at Majuro," said Majuro Customer Service Agent Beatras Bani. "I think at some point, everyone who lives here has taken the Island Hopper at least a few times." Kwajalein General Manager Terrance Dominique noted that the service "has a huge impact both with the local Marshallese and those who are stationed at the U.S. Army installation on Kwajalein island."

Like other Island Hopper station leaders, Terrance notes that ground positions with United are highly coveted, so United tends to attract the best applicants and retention is high. "Employees here are very proud to work United flights," Terrance said. "People tell me all the time, the employees we have along the Island Hopper are the friendliest, warmest in our entire system," Art said. "I have to agree as being friendly is a core part of their island culture." The flip side is that our employees are well-known in these small communities, "So in some ways they're never really off-duty," Art said.

The United employees you'll meet along the Island Hopper are among the hardest working yet warmest, friendliest you'll ever encounterThe United employees you'll meet along the Island Hopper are among the hardest working yet warmest, friendliest you'll ever encounter

Route breeds loyalty among crews

Some pilots and flight attendants routinely bid into the Island Hopper flights as often as possible, and as a result have developed close relationships with many customers, and with our ground staff and residents of the islands and atolls. International Service Manager Glenn Shibao said he has a special bond with the crews and customers after decades of service on the route. "Ever since the beginning, these flights have been special to this region, and they still are, even after I've worked thousands of them. They can be tiring to take all the way through, but most customers are only on for one or two segments in either direction. Except for people who want to experience the Island Hopper, we don't get that many customers who take it all the way through on purpose. When we do, by the end of the line, we usually know them pretty well."

"I've chosen to work the Island Hopper almost exclusively," said First Officer Fitz Fitzgerald. "It's a lot of fun, and as a pilot, it's also challenging. This is what flying is all about."

Capt. Pierre Frenay said when he first relocated to Guam to take on the position of Chief Pilot, "They sent me here from Honolulu via the Island Hopper. I don't know if that was intentional but in terms of me loving this flight, that first experience did it for me and I fly it every now and then just for the sheer fun of it, and because it's a great break from the administrative work I have to do in Guam. "It's not for everyone," Pierre acknowledged. "The Island Hopper being so remote presents a number of challenges with air traffic control, performance, medical transport, and communications throughout the trip — it's a different environment, that's for sure."

At Chuuk and other stops with short runways that require hard braking on landing, we often need to cool off the brakes to ensure safe operation At Chuuk and other stops with short runways that require hard braking on landing, we often need to cool off the brakes to ensure safe operation

Two pairs of pilots work each Island Hopper flight. Two work the Guam-Majuro segments while the others rest, and they change places for the Majuro-Honolulu nonstop. Five flight attendants also work each flight, with two days off in Honolulu before returning. Even with a crew duty time exemption from the FAA, the crews have little margin of error and even minor delays en route can add up to a point where they would be timed out, and we'd have to bring in a fresh crew from Honolulu or Guam. "Luckily, that rarely happens, in part because our teams on the ground all along the route do such a great job of turning the flights quickly," Pierre said.

The precision and speed of the United ground crews and vendors during the stops — all an hour or less of ground time — is something to behold, as they are dealing with a complicated algorithm of people and cargo getting on or coming off at each stop. Cargo, especially, needs to be loaded in a precise manner to maintain proper aircraft weight balance and to minimize the time it takes to work the physical puzzle at the next stop and the stops after that.

Mail is one of many things the islanders count on the United Island Hopper to deliver Mail is one of many things the islanders count on the United Island Hopper to deliver

"It's really an art, how our teams, who are pretty much all part-time, rearrange the contents of the aircraft over the course of the flights," Art noted. "And while they have that great attitude and are having a good time, they're working as hard and as efficiently as any ramp crew you'll see at the big mainland airports."

Entertainment for all

By The Hub team, August 04, 2020

Our Marketing Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity team and Bridge, our Business Resource Group (BRG) for people with all abilities, partnered together to test and provide feedback on our award-winning seatback inflight entertainment (IFE) system.

Aptly named "Entertainment for all," our new seatback IFE system offers the an extensive suite of accessibility features, allowing for unassisted use by people of all visual, hearing, mobility and language abilities.

"It's nice to know that I can get on a plane and pick my favorite entertainment to enjoy, just like every customer," said Accessibility Senior Analyst and Developer and Bridge Chief of Staff Ray C., who is blind.

"As a deaf employee, the closed captioning availability on board our aircraft is something I value greatly," added Information Technology Analyst Greg O. "The new IFE further cements United's visibility within the deaf community and elsewhere. It makes me proud to be an employee."

Accessibility features of the new IFE include a text-to-speech option, explore by touch, customizable text size, screen magnification, color correction and inversion modes, and alternative navigation options for those unable to swipe or use a handset. For hearing-impaired and non-English-speaking passengers, customization options provide the ability for customers to be served content and receive inflight notifications based on their preferences and settings —with closed captions, with subtitles or in the language of their choice from the 15 languages supported. Our "Entertainment for all" system won the Crystal Cabin Award in 2019, and recently, the Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl Research and Development Award for Audio Description by the American Council of the Blind.

"This really showed the benefits of partnering with BRGs in helping us improve products and services for our customers and employees," said Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity Senior Manager Corinne S. "Even though we have been recognized with awards for our IFE accessibility features, we are not resting on our laurels but continuing to work towards improving the inflight entertainment experience for all of our customers to ensure entertainment is available for all."

Shaping an inclusive future with Special Olympics

By The Hub team, July 24, 2020

If your travels have taken you through Chicago O'Hare International Airport anytime since October 2019, you may have had a friendly, caring and jovial exchange with Daniel Smrokowski. Daniel is one of four Service Ambassadors thanks to our ongoing partnership with Special Olympics. This inaugural ambassador program aims to provide Special Olympic athletes employment opportunities within our operation, affording them a unique and meaningful career.

Since 2018, our partnership with Special Olympics has become one of United's most cherished relationships, going beyond the events we take part in and volunteer with. While the plane pull competitions, polar plunges, duck derbies and Special Olympics World Games and other events around the world are a big part of our involvement, the heart of this partnership lies with the athletes and individuals supported by Special Olympics. To advocate for their inclusion in every setting is one of our biggest honors, and we take great pride in the role we play in the organization's inclusion revolution.

Aiding in the success of Special Olympics' mission to create continuing opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, throughout the two-year partnership, United has volunteered over 10,500 hours and donated over $1.2 million in travel to the organization. The impact of this partnership is felt at every level, both at Special Olympics and within our own ranks.

"The Inclusion Revolution campaign, led by our athletes, aims to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. United Airlines has joined in our fight for inclusion, empowering our athletes with the skills needed to succeed and opportunities to contribute their abilities as leaders," said Special Olympics International Chairman Tim Shriver. "United Airlines believes that people with intellectual disabilities should be perceived as they really are: independent, world-class athletes, students, employees, neighbors, travelers, and leaders who contribute to make this world a better place."

Our Service Ambassador program is just one of the many ways Special Olympics has impacted not only our employees, but also our customers. "I see every day how our Service Ambassadors connect with our customers the moment they walk into the airport lobby," said Senior Customer Service Supervisor Steve Suchorabski. "They provide a warm, welcoming smile ad assist in any way they can. To see these young adults hold positions that a society once told them they couldn't is truly the most heartwarming part of my job," Steve continued.

"The opportunity to be a part of the United family means everything to me," Daniel said. "I feel so much pride showing up to work in a Special Olympics/United co-branded uniform, working among such a loving and supportive community. The relationship between these two organizations is truly helping to shape my future while letting me use my gifts of communicating and helping others. Hopefully, I can spend my entire career at United," Daniel added.

In honor of Special Olympics' Global Week of Inclusion in July, we're asking our employees, customers and partners to sign a pledge to #ChooseToInclude at jointherevolution.org/pledge.

And be sure to check out Daniel's podcast The Special Chronicles.

United works with partners to send food to USDA food bank

By The Hub team, July 23, 2020

In collaboration with food-logistics company Commodity Forwarders Inc. (CFI), United moved nearly 190,000 pounds of fresh produce to Guam for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program. This new program was created to provide critical support to consumers impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

A variety of fresh fruits were transported from Los Angeles (LAX) to Guam (GUM) on United's newly introduced, non-stop cargo-only flight – a route added to meet cargo demand during the COVID-19 crisis. The fresh food was repacked in 10-pound cases in Los Angeles, prepared for departure at CFI's LAX location, and flown to GUM by the United team. Through this beneficial partnership between United and CFI, the perishable goods were kept cool during every step of the process and distributed as part of the food bank program in Guam.

"Everyone on our team has worked relentlessly during the pandemic to get critical goods to where they are needed most. Establishing a comprehensive network of cargo-only flights have allowed us to keep the supply chain moving even while passenger flight capacity has been reduced," said Regional Senior Manager of Cargo Sales, Marco Vezjak. "Knowing that we are able to help during these difficult times – in this case the Guam community – is our biggest reward and greatest motivation to keep moving forward."

United is proud to play a role in maintaining the global food supply chain and helping people access the supplies they need. Since March 19, United has operated over 4,000 cargo-only flights, moving over 130 million pounds of cargo.

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