The hula dancer wears a haku lei of white orchids atop her upswept hair, while a velvety rope of white ginger drapes her shoulders. Smiling to a playful song called “Miloli‘i,” she smoothly steps, bends and sways across the stage with a grace that speaks to a lifetime of disciplined commitment. The backdrop for the dancer and her sweet-voiced trio—‘ukulele, bass, guitar —is the recumbent trunk of an ancient kiawe tree, toppled in a windstorm but still alive and saved in place at the historic Halekulani Hotel. Beyond the tree lies Waikïkï’s reef, under the cool blue clouds of twilight.
The dancer is Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, Hawaiian Airlines’ director of Community Relations and an employee of the company for more than forty years. It was hula that first brought her to the airline, back in 1978. And it’s hula that brings her to the Halekulani Hotel, to the House Without a Key, every Sunday night.
One morning on the occasion of Hawaiian Airlines’ ninetieth anniversary, I visit Nakanelua-Richards at the airline’s sleek and airy offices, close to Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. We sit down in a glass-walled showroom full of ephemera from the old days—a single-engine aircraft model, advertisements, yellow newspaper clippings, flight bags, mannequins in dowdy stewardess outfits, and, up near the ceiling, a lineup of propeller and jet aircraft models counting the decades back to 1929. In the adjacent hallway, four wall panels trace the subtle evolution of the “face” of the airline, Pualani, whose flowery fuchsia, purple and orange profile has decorated Hawaiian Airlines’ aircraft since 1973.
I begin our talk by telling Nakanelua-Richards that, as someone raised in Honolulu who’s now a frequent flyer between the Islands and San Francisco, I actually do feel like I’m home the minute I get on HA Flight 11 at SFO. Maybe it’s the flight attendants’ laid-back, local style. Or maybe it’s the rootsy falsetto of Amy Hänaiali‘i playing on the sound system. So I ask her: Where did that Hawaiian-ness, that cool local-ness start? Was it when the then-little inter-island carrier began flying to the West Coast in 1985 and had to make its case?
“Actually, it was waaay before that,” she says. “The airline was always pretty much Hawaiian. The way business was conducted was typical local style, never stuffy or matter-of-fact. Leadership may have been recruited from the mainland, but the style, the flair was always Hawaiian.” She recalls her earliest days at the airline, the late ’70s, when she danced hula as part of a sales promotional team that flew all over the world, at a time when the airline itself only flew interisland. “A huge part of our identity was being Hawaiian and representing Hawai‘i,” she says. “Every conference we went to, we brought our music with us. It was always ‘ukulele, bass, guitar; always ‘ukulele, bass, guitar. Basic. We wore ti-leaf skirts, plumeria lei. We had great musicians—Bob Awana, Brick-wood Galuteria, George Helm. That stuff was real! It wasn’t, ‘Let’s go do a study and see what we should do.’ No, this is what it is, this is what we do.” Now, she says, with an expanding international route system that connects a dozen US cities to the Islands and just as many in Asia and the Pacific, “It’s not all that different. Wherever we go, we like to bring Hawai‘i along.”
For instance, she says, when the airline began nonstop service to New York in 2012, it sponsored the Liberty Challenge, a news-making outrigger canoe race held for several years in New York Harbor. Likewise it supported the 2014 launch of the Sydney Harbor Challenge in Australia, now a prestigious regatta for the Hawaiian sport. And, of course, there are the premier Moloka‘i Hoe and Na Wähine o Ke Kai races, for men and women, across the Kaiwi channel between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu—both sponsored by Hawaiian since 2014.
The airline’s commitment to na mea Hawai‘i (roughly, “things Hawaiian”) figures in various initiatives large and small. The company has been a title sponsor of the annual Merrie Monarch hula festival for more than thirty years. It provided travel and cargo support for crew members throughout the historic, multi-year global circumnavigation by the sailing canoes Höküle‘a and Hikianalia. In 2018, the airline raised an additional $52,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, when employee donations were matched dollar-for-dollar by the airline. Members of Team Kökua, the airline’s all-volunteer cadre, can be found doing everything from fishpond restoration at He‘eia on O‘ahu to driving shuttles at the Merrie Monarch in Hilo. In 2018, 2,673 Team Kökua members spent more than 8,700 hours pitching in for their communities.
Other kinds of cultural support are less visible, but no less meaningful. Among her duties coordinating events and tapping cultural experts, Nakanelua-Richards tells me her favorite task is naming things. She has given a Hawaiian place-name to every room in the airline’s offices—and named most of the aircraft in the fleet. The interisland planes started it all, she says, named after native forest birds, some now extinct. When the airline started flying Boeing 767s to the mainland, she came up with seabird names, like Kölea (golden plover) and Manu o Kü (white tern). Then came the next generation of big jets, the Airbus A-330s, and the future: “When those were on the horizon,” she says, “it felt like it was about the future and the next generation of people who’ll work here. So, I was thinking about Star Trek, actually, and the next generation. So, boom, it hits me … stars!” Once she latched onto the idea of star names, she knew whom to ask, starting with the pwo, the Hawai‘i navigators who had studied with the late Satawalese voyager Mau Piailug. Then she asked the next generation of navigators—Pomaikalani Bertelmann, Ka‘iulani Murphy, Nä‘älehu Anthony. (Nakanelua-Richards’ husband, Billy Richards, is him-self a veteran sailor with the Polynesian Voyaging Society.) Among the names of the new aircraft are lodestars that have guided voyagers for centuries: Makali‘i (the Pleiades), Höküle‘a (Arcturus), Hökü Pa‘a (Polaris), ‘Iwa Keli‘i (Cassiopeia).
This level of cultural intuitiveness sets the airline apart when it comes to how it engages with the larger community. Late last year, at roughly the same time that the airline announced plans to begin nonstop service to Boston, news reached Hawai‘i that the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) of Salem, Massachusetts, near Boston, was preparing to place a treasure of deeply Hawaiian import on permanent display. That treasure is the god image of Kü, a fearsomely spectacular six-foot ki‘i (statue) carved at least two hundred years ago out of ‘ulu (breadfruit wood). Kü, one of four chief deities in the Hawaiian pantheon, is perhaps best known by his warring name Kükä‘ilimoku, or “snatcher of islands,” though he is also a god of the forests, agriculture and fishing. Brought from Hawai‘i by seafarers in the early nineteenth century, PEM’s ki‘i is one of just three surviving, similarly large Kü images. The other two are in London and Honolulu.
A jewel box of a museum, PEM is noted for its collections of Asian and Oceanic arts. The museum was completing a new gallery wing that includes a sunny and dramatic space for its Kü, which had long been unavailable to museum visitors. In June 2019, Hawaiian Airlines flew a delegation of Hawaiian cultural practitioners to Salem to rouse Kü from his warehouse slumber, and to reconnect with him. The delegation included Mehanaokala Hind of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, cultural practitioners Keahi Piiohia and Kamalu du Preez, and Marques Hanalei Marzan, an artist and cultural resource specialist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
I ask Marzan whether the team advised PEM staff regarding appropriate physical handling of the ki‘i itself. “Well,” he tact-fully replies, “we did a bit of that, but it was more from a Hawaiian perspective—it was about spiritual protection of the space, of everyone involved, as well as the image itself. So we focused primarily on that care and guidance and protection. After that was done, Kü made his way out to his mount and final space in the hall. That’s when we offered lei to honor him in his new public space. We offered protocols to cleanse the space itself, to keep it clear of obstacles, to make it positive and welcoming, an inspiring space.”
“He haumana ‘Ölelo Hawai‘i au, a e hana ikaika au,” says Alex Bachwich haltingly when I ask him for a sentence in Hawaiian. “It means, ‘I am a student of Hawaiian language, and I will work hard.’” Bachwich, 21, is from Rapid City, South Dakota. He earned his master’s degree in transportation science from MIT when he was 19. Now, after two years with the airline, he runs a team of engineers who plan the airline’s network structure and scheduling five years out. “How do we make sure we have the gates, the crews and the maintenance facilities?” he says, explaining his job. “And how do you synthesize all that together into a schedule that works, that operates on time and at a reasonable cost?”
For the past year, Bachwich has been informally studying ‘Ölelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) at a bi-weekly class, taught by fellow employee Keone Martin. Bachwich found the opportunity through a company newsletter. The language class alternates weeks with a course on hula as part of a series at the airline, created by Nakanelua-Richards, known as Ke Kumu (the teacher)—the concept being that employees who are fluent share knowledge with their colleagues. Through the class, Bachwich learns vocabulary words, phrases, folklore, culture. For instance, he’s interested in the finer points of adjectival articles like këia, kënä and këlä, which, he says, refer to “the space around me,” “the space around you,” and “everywhere else.” “English,” he points out, by way of contrast, “has just ‘this’ and ‘that,’ ‘here’ and ‘there.’” He says he now uses the phrase aloha kakahiaka käkou (good morning, everyone) in meetings; and that he and his class got to chant the oli mähalo, the thank-you chant, to a group of employees celebrating thirty years with the airline. “Things like this class help to set us apart as an airline,” he says. “We have so many employees from here, born and raised, who really do represent the culture. I’m new here, and I can’t even begin to have their experience, but taking this class is one way for me to learn more about where I am.”
In addition to Bachwich’s informal classes, in February 2019 the airline launched a more rigorous language certification program for its employees. Developed in consultation with numerous Hawaiian language experts—including Dr. Larry Kimura, considered a kupuna (elder) of Hawaiian language revitalization, and Dr. Leilani Basham, a professor at the University of Hawai‘i-West O‘ahu—the program aims for its students to achieve fluency in ‘Ölelo Hawai‘i. Those who do are recognized with a red-white-and-blue hae Hawai‘i (Hawaiian flag) imprinted on their nametags, just as other employees are flagged if they’re fluent in French, Japanese, Korean or Samoan. So far, thirteen wear the hae Hawai‘i.
Alisa Onishi, director of Brand Management for Hawaiian Airlines, joins me in a conference room near her office. A graduate of Kamehameha Schools, class of 2000, Onishi worked her way up to become “head of brand” in 2014. “What is ‘brand’?” I ask. She answers: “It’s every-thing from onboard videos to uniforms, to what the planes look like inside and out, to lobby spaces, office spaces, online presence, everything to do with our image. It’s how each of the 7,400 employees of Hawaiian Airlines represents ourselves every day. It’s not just visual. It’s character, all of it.” Getting this right isn’t always easy, especially where language is concerned. Onishi tells me they had real difficulty with “oxygen mask,” a term that had no direct Hawaiian translation for use in the airline’s safety video, which is subtitled in ‘Ölelo Hawai‘i.
Over the course of our conversation, I pick up a few words of airline jargon: “Livery” refers to planes’ paint jobs. “Above-the-wing crew” includes guest service agents, flight attendants and pilots; while “below-the-wing crew” includes mechanics, suppliers, cleaners, ramp crews(baggage and cargo handlers) and “line service crews,”—i.e., fuelers, plane movers—and the lucky people who wave those orange light sabers around.
Onishi talks about “competitive sets,” which is a form of measurement used to compare one’s own business with that of competitors. In one case, it was a competitive set that laid out the visual characters of all airline brands. “Our purplish visual expression stood out from the sea of blue airlines and red airlines,” Onishi reports about the recent comp-set study. “We stand out in a way we always wanted to stand out, because we’re unique. We represent Hawai‘i. We don’t have to represent the rest of the world—we exist because we bring people to and from Hawai‘i.”
The most impactful messaging the airline does on a regular basis is the sequence of videos that play on the planes’ screens, from boarding time to cruising altitude on long-haul flights. Onishi and her team produce them all: First there is the hour-long boarding loop, the showpiece, with complete song performances by a canny selection of Hawai‘i’s best musicians—among them, Henry Kapono, Amy Hänaiali‘i, Kuana Torres Kahele, Robert Cazimero and Kawika Kahiapo—filmed at meaningful locations around the Islands.
The thirty-second welcome video appears next, as soon as all passengers are aboard and boarding doors are closed. The video starts with Alena dancing, Stephen paddling a board, Bryan riding a dirt bike, Dustin surfing, then suddenly they’re working at a service desk, or servicing a jet engine, or smiling from the cockpit or cleaning cabin aisles. “We love our home,” a voice-over says, “and we love sharing it with you. Welcome to our traditions. Welcome to our favorite places. Welcome to our inspiration.” Cut to an aircraft moving on the tarmac. “Mahalo for flying with the airline dedicated to Hawai‘i. We’re proud to share the spirit of the Islands. On behalf of our entire Hawaiian Airlines ‘ohana, aloha käkou. Mai ka lä hiki a ka lä kau. Aloha mai. Welcome aboard.”
As I have so many times before, I slide into a window seat on the starboard side of the plane, near the back, for my return flight to San Francisco. It’s my habitual perch when leaving Honolulu, so I can gaze down and say goodbye to Moloka‘i, Läna‘i, Maui and distant Hawai‘i Island. Likewise, when I’m headed to Honolulu, I like to take a window on the port side, so I can spot the Islands as soon as possible, off to the southwest, as we approach. I know they’re close when fleets of puffy trade-wind clouds first appear. Sometimes the broad volcanic summits of Haleakalä, on Maui, and Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on Hawai‘i Island appear like purple whales lolling among milk clouds, gigantic in their Pacific isolation. Then Moloka‘i’s shadowed valleys and cliffs, then its ‘Ïlio Point. As the aircraft slows and descends, I start to make out the whitecaps on the Kaiwi channel. By their brightness I can assess O‘ahu wind conditions and shorebreak wave heights, and whether an immediate holoholo to bodysurf at Makapu‘u is worthwhile. I travel with fins.
Trying to analyze why an airline is Hawaiian is like explaining why a place called Hawai‘i is unique in the world, when you know, deep down, that it simply is. For a lot of companies, an identity is something built through conscious effort. In this case, it feels like something that’s been settled into. I randomly ask a local woman whether she thinks the airline is, indeed, Hawaiian, and she answers without pausing: “Yeah, because they hire local people.” But it’s more than that: What began as Inter-Island Airways all those years ago is now a global enterprise, but even so every route still either begins or ends in the Islands. With its effortless aloha and commitment to the concept of Mea Ho‘okipa (“I am host”), the carrier proudly beams Hawaiian cultural values to the world. We can feel it, and it feels like home. HH