If you’re an aviation geek, you know about United Flight 154. Known as the “Island Hopper”, the Boeing 737-800 runs on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday traversing the Pacific ocean island-by-island, taking you to remote places many don’t even know exist. Departing Honolulu, it heads to Majuro, Marshall Islands (MAJ) then hops to four more islands, Kwajalein (KWA) to Kosrae (KSA) to Pohnpei (PHI) to Chuuk (TKK) before reaching its destination and landing in Guam (GUM). For a travel and airplane geek, the united flight 154 route is your Mecca.
I made my way from my hotel on Waikiki to Honolulu International Airport early Monday morning and proceeded to check into my flight. I was as excited as a little kid on Christmas morning. It is a very rare occasion that I will ever check a bag. Out of hundreds of flights flown, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have checked luggage. However, knowing what’s about to happen over the next eighteen hours, it was simply more convenient. Plus everywhere the aircraft goes, I go right along with it, so the risk of a lost bag was minimal.
My home on this journey for the next day, an ex-Continental Airlines Boeing 737-800 with a crew that pretty much only operates this unique route. Noticing that every person in the long check in line at Honolulu had a ton of bags , I commented to the woman in front of me about it.
Her reply was short and informative: “Oh. It’s always like this on hopper morning.”
Sorting Out the Chaos
After passing through TSA, I grab a quick breakfast, and went to sit in the gate area to wait for boarding. The crew arrived at the gate area shortly after but they couldn’t get on the aircraft yet. Apparently maintenance was busy fixing something, but after a few minutes the crew boarded. As the time to board approached, my phone alerted me that the flight was delayed by twenty minutes. What else is new was my initial thought. Delays are a dime a dozen these days so no surprise there. I was amped for united flight 154, nothing could get me down.
A half hour goes by and the entire crew comes back up the jet way! Pilots, FAs, and a couple guys with neon vests. This is when I first realize that something is going wrong. What’s happening here?
Another half hour goes by. I overhear one of the three pilots in the gate area (they carry an extra for this flight) mention something about maybe having to skip an island due to the new work time rules recently implemented by the U.S. Federal Government. I died a little inside when I heard that. I’m here to see all the islands. Not just 3 or 4 out of five of them. ALL THE ISLANDS!
That thought was interrupted by the PA system: “Passenger [MikeRTW], please check in at the counter”
Broken Hopper – What the Flight!
What? Me? I wonder what they want with me. I proceed to walk up and was met by a woman I have named KAFGA. That’s short for Kick-Ass Friendly Gate Agent. She will prove to be immensely helpful as the story continues. I notice that she has a boarding pass in her hand as she looks up at me and starts to speak.
“You’re the only passenger going all the way through to Guam, so I’ve booked you on the Guam direct that departs shortly.” she states and proceeds to hand me my new boarding pass.
This is going to be a problem.
I quickly explain why I am in Honolulu and that I am an airplane and travel geek. I told her that I have flown 13 hours all the way from Boston just to take this flight. Please, I need to be on it.
KAFGA understands perfectly. She explains they’re going to cancel this united flight 154 hopper flight in about five minutes due to mechanical problems and send everyone home including the crew. But they’ll be fixing the aircraft and moving the hopper to tomorrow morning so I will still get to make my dream flight.
“Are you sure you don’t want the Guam direct?” she asks smiling, already knowing my answer. I laugh, tilt my head to the side, and don’t even respond with words, just a look. She laughs as she cancels the HNL-GUM direct they rightfully anticipated that any normal customer would be grateful to have in place of the cancelled hopper.
She mentions that in the fifteen or so years she has been doing this flight, she has run into others here and there who also come just to fly this route.
The KAFGA Is Here to Help
So she understands my excitement to wait until the next day and pass up a first class upgrade to the Guam direct. She tells me to wait for an announcement with information. I give her a dozen thanks and step off to the side and go return to my seat in the boarding area.
Now the obvious gate manager or whoever walks over to the PA and announces the flight is cancelled. The aircraft has a broken reverse thrust pressure valve, it needs to be fixed. They can’t just give us another airplane for this particular flight for multiple reasons.
Unfortunately the needed replacement parts are in San Francisco and we, along with the broken hopper aircraft, are in Hawaii. They’re flying them in shortly, will fix the aircraft this afternoon/evening, and the same plane will depart at the same time tomorrow, 24 hours from now. Apparently reverse thrust is very necessary when you’re landing a fully loaded 737 on very small runways. The one in Kosrae is only 5,750 feet. Brakes are good.
Free Night in Hawaii: Vouchers & Rebooking
We are instructed to go down to baggage claim, get our luggage, then upstairs to ticket counters to get meal, hotel, and transportation vouchers, along with a new boarding pass for the new flight tomorrow.
Oh, hell no. I have been at this rodeo before and know how it goes. Get my baggage first? That’s hilarious. I ignore her and run directly to the ticket counter. There’s only one person in line. Now that’s what I am talking about.
There are worse things in life than an extra free night in Hawaii, so no complaints from me. My new boarding pass is printed and I walk away, glancing at the line that had formed behind. It’s now 150 people deep. Score at least one win for Mike today.
Darnit, Let’s Get This Right
I notice I only got one pass that says “HNL-MAJ” (Majuro, Marshall Islands; the first hopper stop) rather than the five separate boarding passes for each leg that I originally received.
However, I don’t think much of it. It’s just to get through security tomorrow with the new date on it anyway, since everyone is getting back on the same flight, with the same people, doing exactly what we were trying to do this morning. Obviously the ticket counter woman must have just not printed the other four in order to save time. Fast forward about a day. Let’s take this from the top again:
Pre-Departure – TAKE TWO
Arrive at the airport and get to a kiosk. It won’t let me check in to the flight. Says please see ticket counter attendant. A ticket agent walks over, fiddles with the computer on her side, and prints out a bag tag for my suitcase. As she’s wrapping it around the handle, I notice it says “MAJ” and not “GUM” as it should. Something’s not right here.
Unsure what was happening and worried, I mentioned to her: “I’m going all the way to Guam, not Majuro.”
This was met with a puzzled look. “This says you’re going to Majuro. Were you going to Guam yesterday? Why didn’t they just book you on one of the direct flights?” she states. She said it so matter of fact. Almost as if I am wrong about my own destination.
“You wouldn’t understand. I’m definitely going to Guam and definitely on the hopper” was my firm response. She then fiddles with the computer for literally twenty minutes. *tap* tap * tap *
Something is very wrong, I could tell from the look on her face and the fact she kept stopping and doing nothing as if the computer won’t interact with her. She didn’t know what to do. *tap* tap * tap *
I’m thinking whoever gave me the boarding pass yesterday with the vouchers royally messed up my booking. Another ten minutes go by. *tap* tap * tap *
It’s getting a little too close to departure for my comfort level and I am not even through TSA yet. I start to sweat physically and my heart was racing. I need to be on this flight. *tap* tap * tap *
Guess who walks by? It’s KAFGA, the nice gate agent from yesterday who knows my love for this route. Come to find out she came out to the ticket counters to get something and saw me.
“Is everything alright?” she asks the ticket agent as she looks at me. Then she steps in and says to the ticket agent, “Here, let me do this. I’ll help him.” KAFGA is now in the house.
KAFGA looks at the computer for about two minutes, looks at me, smiles, and says “Wow, they messed this one up big yesterday. I can fix it, but it will take some time.”
“Am I going to get on this airplane? Can I please have the same seat? This is so important to me!” was my cry for help. She comforted me with a simple and warm “I know. We’ll get you on this flight. I promise.”
You’ll Be Fine Mike
She handed me the MAJ boarding pass back and told me just to use that to get through security and then come meet her at the gate counter in twenty minutes. She’ll work on this for me from there. Twenty minutes later, I am through security and meet her at the gate. It’s taking a while. “I have to rebook you on each segment separately. Have a seat and I will see you when I have your boarding pass. You’ll be fine” she states. Finally is was on my way to boarding united flight 154.
They start boarding. Then they finish boarding everyone in the gate area. Everyone is on the plane. Not me! KAFGA is still typing away, not having helped anyone else during this entire time. My heart rate is the equivalent of being about thirty minutes into an hour long cardio session right now.
I have to make this flight. I can’t not make this flight. Oh my god, what if I don’t make this flight. This can’t be happening. As they’re making the final boarding announcement, she runs over, hands me a boarding pass, and tells me to go have a great flight. “It’s a fun ride!” she says.
A quick glance at the boarding pass. HNL-GUM. Seat 7A. I pick up my backpack and run down the jet way, finally exhaling as my foot steps on the aircraft. It’s full and ready to go and waiting for me.
Two Guys. One Seat.
What? Shit. I double check the row number.
“Sorry man, I have 7A.” I say with little confidence to the guy that looks comfortable in his seat. He pulls out a boarding pass also showing 7A. There goes the heart rate again. He gets up and we walk to the front of the aircraft. We see the in-flight manager, explain the situation, and he says to us both to come with me and we walk up the jet way to the ticket counter.
Pointing to me, KAFGA looks at the in-flight manager and says “He definitely has 7A” without missing a beat.
“Wait. Why does he get the window? I was there first” the other guy says, not happy at all. I pretend he isn’t even standing there and ignore him. KAFGA ignores him too, prints out a boarding pass for the other guy that says “7B”, and hands it to him. “He has 7A, sorry” was the short and simple answer from KAFGA to Mr. 7B.
We both run down the jet way, get on the airplane, and the door closes right behind us. Never had that happen before. We jump in our seats, buckle in, and the aircraft starts pushing back. I take a moment to collect my composure about what has played out over the past 24 hours.
I’m on the flight. Check. I’m in 7A. Check. I’ll get all my killer photographs that I have wanted for more than a decade. Check. It’s actually happening right now. WOW.
About That Seat
We reach cruise and it is five hours to Majuro, so to not be totally awkward, I apologize to 7B sitting right next to me and explain why I am on the flight – that I am here just for this flight and just for that seat.
He thought that was wicked cool and we become flight buddies. He took the picture of me next to the airport sign in Majuro and is ex-military heading to Kwajalein for work. Come to find out, he had row 21 or 31 or something, but when he checked in at the kiosk this morning, he randomly pulled up the seat map and saw a single lonely seat open at the front of the airplane: 7A.
Remember when KAFGA handed me the MAJ boarding pass and told me to just get through security and meet her? She apparently had cancelled my entire booking at that point, and only started the new one when I came to meet her. This freed up my seat for a twenty minute window, during which Mr. 7B checked in, saw the seat map on the kiosk, saw that 7A was available, and snagged it.
In Route to MAJ
So Mr. 7B and I are now flight buddies for the small slice of our lives. The 737-800 on this route is setup six across in a A/B/C & D/E/F layout. 7C is a revenue passenger going from HNL-MAJ. This is important as 7C becomes someone else in MAJ. An individual who is crucial to this flight and route.
As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the in-flight crew started a breakfast service. Even though this flight is on a legacy U.S. carrier (United), and in Coach/Economy, a full hot breakfast was offered. French toast w/Sausage or an Egg Omelet.
I chose the French toast. It was quite yummy. Although I only say that because we’re an hour into a flight I have dreamed about taking for a long, long time. You could have served me a pile of you know what and I probably would have just smiled and enjoyed it.
Resting – NOT Sleeping
Although I was excited by what lies ahead, the first leg is five hours in coach flying over the Pacific Ocean. So after the breakfast service was over, I settled in with my Bose headphones and House of Cards on my tablet. 7B puts his head into his Kindle. I leaned against the window and gave 7B the whole armrest, because well, that’s what you do when someone has a middle seat. It’s the 12th law of flying. We all know this, right?
About an hour out of Majuro, the flight attendants do another beverage trolley run. Outside, clouds become more sparse and wispy, while the dark blue of the Pacific starts becoming visible. We’ve probably also crossed the international date line at this stage, which means we’ve unceremoniously advanced one day. At longitude 171º 16′ E, Majuro is one of the first places on earth to see a new day and is almost directly north of Auckland at 174º 47′ E – the Marshall Islands share the same standard time zone as New Zealand.
The credits started to roll on the fourth episode of House of Cards when, with almost perfect timing, I heard an announcement through my headphones from the flight deck.“We should have you on the ground in about twenty-five minutes”
We’re approaching Majuro. I look to my left and see this:
I had been checking about every 20 or 30 minutes for this initial hop for any glimpse of land out the window. Of course, I knew there wasn’t anything to see between Hawaii and Majuro, but finally spotting this was awesome. Mr. 7B got excited too. We alternated taking pictures out the window. This was his first time on this flight and first time to Majuro and Kwajalein as well.
The runways on all these islands run east/west and I think winds dictate that almost every time, you circle around and land west to east. This is absolutely awesome because it not only allows you to see the island(s) on approach as you circle, but you get to do the same upon take-off, since they circle back to head west for the next island.
This is why 7A is so crucial to this flight. Business class awards and upgrades are non-existent on this route. If you want it, you’re paying for it. Likewise, on a 737’s, anything after Row 10 has some obstruction by the engine and wing. Your best bet is the first bulkhead row of coach/economy, which is 7A.
The left (A) side of the plane is also much better than the right (F) side. This is because you’re circling around to the left to land and circling left upon take off to head back west. If you ever take this flight, you must get 7A and you can see why I was so worried about losing that seat in all the pre-flight drama.
Majuro, Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands is a large coral atoll that comprises 64 separate islands in the Pacific Ocean, with Majuro (pronounced: Ma-Dro) as its capital. With a population of almost 25,000 people, it is definitely the most populated stop on this adventure by far.
Our time in Majuro was brief, as will be all the stops on the hopper. We all got off the plane to stretch our legs and walk around. Exit is through the forward door only where a baggage cart is parked at the bottom of the stairs for transits to store carry-ons they don’t want to lug to a couple hundred feet to the terminal. Leaving bags unattended on the tarmac? Wow.
There’s such a casual feel to everything that you almost forget this is an international flight operated by a U.S. carrier.
The people who had Majuro as their final destination left the group and the rest remained just walking around waiting for the all clear to get back on the aircraft. Mr. 7B took the picture of me next to the airport sign above, and I took a picture of him with the same sign using his phone.
Mr. 7C: Flight Mechanic
Once we were all back on board, I went to my seat and noticed that revenue passenger 7C had left us in Majuro and in his place, was a sign on the seat as shown to the left.
For the remainder of way to Guam, we are joined by a United flight mechanic who monitors the aircraft along the way.
Obeserving the Situation
I noticed that at each stop he jumped up and went right outside to do certain tasks. They varied along the way and I will describe a couple below at other stops. Basically, he does things that a typical ground crew would do at a normal airport… because well, there is no typical ground crew at each stop.
Everyone got settled into their seats including the new passengers we picked up in Majuro. Because there are no taxiways at these airports, we pull onto the runway, go down the wrong way to do a complete 180 at the end, and do a fast take off run for our next destination: Kwajalein Air Force Base.
It’s also when I notice that the lone fire truck on Majuro has parked itself at the end of the runway waiting for us to depart. It’s there just in case. I wasn’t sure if I should be comforted or feel nervous.
Kwajalein Island is a highly private, top secret, U.S. Military installation that has been used for many nuclear missile tests in since the 1950’s.
With a population of around 1,000 individuals, it consists of mostly Americans and a small number of Marshall Islanders and other nationals, all of whom have express permission from the U.S. Army to live there.
We circled around to land on the little beige runway where the arrow is in the picture to the left as the in-flight manager came over the intercom: “Please keep photographic equipment out of sight to avoid them being confiscated by ground staff”
No Pics, Please
Unfortunately, due to the nature of Kwajalein, we were unable to take any pictures on the ground or even get off the airplane. I knew this going into the trip that the stop in Kwajalein would be highly uneventful as the U.S. Military imposes many restrictions on passengers who don’t have “business” on the island. You can only deplane if you have orders to do so.
Mr. 7B was a government contractor, so this is where we parted ways. He’s on Kwaj for 18 days and planned to do a lot of snorkeling and relaxing between work shifts. His work there is highly, highly, classified and he joked about it. In fact I could only get one line out of him the entire time about what he was actually doing:
“Cool military space stuff” Mr. 7B
He shook my hand, wished me a great time on the rest of the trip, and got off the aircraft, along with about 30 or so others. On that note, we took on about 30 so the load remained the same.
More Seat Trouble
Ironically, a woman boarded at Kwaj with a boarding pass that says Seat 7C. As you now know, this is the mechanic’s seat. In flight manager came and got her, she got back off the airplane, and we never saw her again so I assume she had no seat and had to wait a couple days for the next Hopper. We sort of need the Mechanic as he isn’t really optional on this route.
We had yet ANOTHER person board at Kosrae with a 7C boarding pass. Between my issues with 7A and the two separate passengers with 7C issues, I am guessing the seat map on this flight isn’t an exact science. It must have to do with the flight being a single number, but allowing people to book each of the five segments separately if desired and allowing them to fly one, two, three, four, all of them, or any combination thereof. I honestly don’t know, but it’s quite interesting.
Even when you remove the Row 7 seat issues, there were a few more in the back. All in all I would guess there were a total of about 8 to 10 instances of conflicting seats over the course of this entire trip.
Kosrae & Phonpei
The next two islands came and went by really quick. You’re only there for 35-45 minutes on the ground, which is just enough time to look around and then get back on the airplane.
We were running a little behind so an announcement came as we were about twenty minutes out of Kosrae that they were requesting all transit passengers to remain on the aircraft so as to turn it around as soon as possible.
Although this was not enforced per se, I reluctantly agreed. I hadn’t been on the aircraft for the security sweep and wanted to see what happens.
See, there is a cabin check at every stop. If you are a transit passenger (e.g., going on to the next stop), then you have to retrieve your cabin baggage from the overhead bin at each stop. It is pretty annoying but required by TSA apparently since the U.S. Government is “concerned” about the lack of security at all of these airports.
As we were on the ground in Kosrae, the in-flight manager came over to the mechanic in 7C and advised him the water tanks were low and needed to be refilled. He jumped into action. We also took on a bunch of ice and some other cargo at Kosrae. Apparently Kosrae is a great diving place, because a couple got on the aircraft with cool “Kosrae Diving School” shirts.
The Mysterious Paradise Island
One of the best parts of each stop is that the only fire truck on each island waits at the end of the runway for the plane to arrive, and drives out with the aircraft to wait at the end of the runway as it departs.
Kosrae International Airport currently handles a grand total of four scheduled passenger jet departures and arrivals per week, consisting of two hoppers, each making one stop in each direction.
On the remaining three days of the week, there are no movements. This makes any airport infrastructure – even the most modest terminal building – look a bit extravagant.
Leaving Pohnpei, the seat belt signs come off and service starts with the distribution of immigration forms, something that’s been practiced consistently since Honolulu.
On this sector, the crew does two rounds. First the Federated States of Micronesia forms for Chuuk bound passengers and then the typical I-94s for Guam. It feels strange to be filling out a U.S. immigration arrival form when I am flying in from Hawaii.
I’m not a diver, so I don’t know. But apparently, next to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, Chuuk has some of the best scuba diving in the entire world. Inside the terminal, there is a large wall-mounted poster of the dive map of Chuuk Lagoon with some pretty impressive detail.
Few dive sites around the world can match this one with its ghost fleet of more than 70 sunken hulks and 270 planes lying in the shallow waters in and around the lagoon.
Chuuk was a major central Pacific naval base for the Japanese in World War II.
Over two days in February of 1944, it sustained aerial bombing in Operation Hailstone that reduced some 180,000 tons of shipping and hundreds of planes to the base of what eventually became one of the world’s largest artificial coral reefs.
For the other islands, people don’t go there to vacation. They’re on the Hopper because they either live or work at one of the stops.
When it came to Chuuk, it was obvious that people were there to depart for the diving or coming back from an incredible diving vacation.
Also of note at this stop is the old Chuuk Hotel. During other trip reports in years past, people always posted photos of it abandoned and run down.
Well at some point in the past 12 to 24 months, it was renovated. There were even a couple people out on one of the balconies watching us as we landed and taxied into the airport. I thought that was interesting.
It’s Over: Guam
We did the same drill, on the ground quick and back up in the air. The final hour and a half of united flight 154 would take us to our destination on this 14 hour trip, Guam.
We were served a turkey and cheese sandwich on this leg as many travel just on this leg, the Guam to/from Chuuk segment for the aforementioned diving.
Nighttime was fast approaching. We had been riding with the sun the entire day, but night was catching up to us and we landed over the lights of Guam. Arrival was routine. The airport was not busy and immigration was quick, especially being a U.S. Citizen.
As you can see, it was a very anti-climactic ending to what started out as one of the craziest flights I had ever tried to board. Now, the Hopper exists as about 100 pictures and an entire day of fond memories, hot sun, and beautiful scenery.