Short runways, quick turns & wide smiles: Island Hopper serves as ‘lifeline’
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 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 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 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
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
"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."
Right now, around the world, brave members of America's armed forces are on duty, defending our freedom and upholding our values.
When not laser-focused on the mission at hand, they're looking forward to the day when their service to our nation is fulfilled and they can reunite with their families.
They are also imagining how they can use their hard-earned skills to build an exciting, rewarding and important career when they return home.
I want them to look no further than United Airlines.
That's why we are focused on recruiting, developing and championing veterans across our company, demonstrating to our returning women and men in uniform that United is the best possible place for them to put their training, knowledge, discipline and character to the noblest use.
They've developed their knowledge and skills in some of the worst of times. We hope they will use those skills to keep United performing at our best, all of the time.
That's why we are accelerating our efforts to onboard the best and the brightest, and substantially increasing our overall recruitment numbers each year.
We recently launched a new sponsorship program to support onboarding veterans into United and a new care package program to support deployed employees. It's one more reason why United continues to rank high - and rise higher - as a top workplace for veterans. In fact, we jumped 21 spots this year on Indeed.com's list of the top U.S workplaces for veterans. This is a testament to our increased recruiting efforts, as well as our efforts to create a culture where veterans feel valued and supported.
We use the special reach and resources of our global operations to partner with outstanding organizations. This is our way of stepping up and going the extra mile for all those who've stepped forward to answer our nation's call.
We do this year-round, and the month of November is no exception; however, it is exceptional, especially as we mark Veterans Day.
As we pay tribute to all Americans who have served in uniform and carried our flag into battle throughout our history, let's also keep our thoughts with the women and men who are serving around the world, now. They belong to a generation of post-9/11 veterans who've taken part in the longest sustained period of conflict in our history.
Never has so much been asked by so many of so few.... for so long. These heroes represent every color and creed. They are drawn from across the country and many immigrated to our shores.
They then freely choose to serve in the most distant and dangerous regions of the world, to protect democracy in its moments of maximum danger.
Wherever they serve - however they serve - whether they put on a uniform each day, or serve in ways which may never be fully known, these Americans wake up each morning willing to offer the "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf.
Every time they do so, they provide a stunning rebuke to the kinds of voices around the world who doubt freedom and democracy's ability to defend itself.
Unfortunately, we know there are those who seem to not understand – or say they do not - what it is that inspires a free people to step forward, willing to lay down their lives so that their country and fellow citizens might live.
But, we – who are both the wards and stewards of the democracy which has been preserved and handed down to us by veterans throughout our history – do understand.
We know that inciting fear and hatred of others is a source of weakness, not strength. And such divisive rhetoric can never inspire solidarity or sacrifice like love for others and love of country can.
It is this quality of devotion that we most honor in our veterans - those who have served, do serve and will serve.
On behalf of a grateful family of 96,000, thank you for your service.
Each year around Veterans Day, Indeed, one of the world's largest job search engines, rates companies based on actual employee reviews to identify which ones offer the best opportunities and benefits for current and former U.S. military members. Our dramatic improvement in the rankings this year reflects a stronger commitment than ever before to actively recruiting, developing and nurturing veteran talent.
"We've spent a lot of time over the past 12 months looking for ways to better connect with our employees who served and attract new employees from the military ranks," said Global Catering Operations and Logistics Managing Director Ryan Melby, a U.S. Army veteran and the president of our United for Veterans business resource group.
"Our group is launching a mentorship program, for instance, where we'll assign existing employee-veterans to work with new hires who come to us from the armed forces. Having a friend and an ally like that, someone who can help you translate the skills you picked up in the military to what we do as a civilian company, is invaluable. That initiative is still in its infancy, but I'm really optimistic about what it can do for United and for our veteran population here."
Impressively, we were the only one of our industry peers to move up on the list, further evidence that we're on a good track as a company.
The question of where David Ferrari was had haunted retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Vincent Salceto for the better part of 66 years.
Rarely did a week go by that Salceto didn't think about his old friend. Often, he relived their last moments together in a recurring nightmare. In it, it's once again 1953 and Salceto and Ferrari are patrolling a valley in what is now North Korea. Suddenly, explosions shatter the silence and flares light up the night sky.
Crouching under a barrage of bullets, Salceto, the squad's leader, drags two of his men to safety, then he sees Ferrari lying face down on the ground. He runs out to help him, but he's too late. And that's when he always wakes up.
Italian Americans from opposite coasts – Salceto from Philadelphia, Ferrari from San Francisco – the two became close, almost like brothers, after being assigned to the same unit during the Korean War. When Ferrari died, it hit Salceto hard.
"After that, I never let anyone get close to me like I did with Dave," he says. "I couldn't; I didn't want to go through that again."
When the war ended, Salceto wanted to tell Ferrari's family how brave their son and brother had been in battle. Most of all, he wanted to salute his friend at his gravesite and give him a proper farewell.
For decades, though, Salceto had no luck finding his final resting place or locating any of his relatives. Then, in June of this year, he uncovered a clue that led him to the Italian Cemetary in Colma, California, where Ferrari is buried.
Within days, Salceto, who lives in Franklinville, New Jersey, was packed and sitting aboard United Flight 731 from Philadelphia to San Francisco with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Donna Decker, on his way to Colma. For such a meaningful trip, he even wore his Army dress uniform.
That's how San Francisco-based flight attendant Noreen Baldwin spotted him as he walked down the jet bridge to get on the plane.
"I saw him and said to the other crew members, 'Oh my goodness, look at this guy,'" she says. "I knew there had to be a story."
The two struck up a conversation and Salceto told Baldwin why he was traveling. She got emotional listening to him talk and made a point of fussing over him, making sure he and his family had everything they needed.
About halfway through the flight, Baldwin had an idea. She and her fellow crew members would write messages of encouragement to Salceto and invite his fellow passengers to do the same.
"We did it discreetly," says Baldwin. "I asked the customers if they saw the man in uniform, which most had, and asked them if they wanted to write a few words for him on a cocktail napkin. A lot of people did; families did it together, parents got their kids to write something. After the first few rows, I was so choked up that I could barely talk."
When Baldwin surprised Salceto with dozens of hand-written notes, he, too, was speechless. He laid the stack on his lap and read each one. At the same time, the pilots made an announcement about the veteran over the loud speaker, after which the customers on board burst into applause.
"It seems contrived, and I hate using the word organic, but that's what it was; it just happened," Baldwin says. "Mr. Salceto was so loveable and humble, and what he was doing was so incredible, it felt like the right thing to do. And you could tell he was touched."
On June 27, Salceto finally stood before Ferrari's grave and said that long-awaited goodbye. As a trumpeter played "Taps," he unpinned a medal from his jacket and laid it reverently on the headstone.
"I had gotten a Bronze Star for my actions [the night Ferrari died] with a 'V' for valor, and that was the medal I put on Dave's grave," says Salceto, pausing to fight back tears. "I thought he was more deserving of it than I was."
For the first time in years, Salceto felt at peace. His mission was accomplished.