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United's Island Hopper Adventure: 7 Pacific Islands in 15 Hours on a Boeing 737

United's Island Hopper Adventure: 7 Pacific Islands in 15 Hours on a Boeing 737

BY HADI AHMAD Published on April 09, 2024 11 COMMENTS

When it comes to serving remote communities, airlines are sometimes the only means to provide vital resources to these places. One such example is the "Island Hopper", a service by United Airlines from Honolulu to Guam that stops in various Pacific islands.

 

Photo: Indy Spotter | AeroXplorer

 

History

 

The Island Hopper was launched in 1968 by Air Micronesia, affectionately known as "Air Mike". The service utilized a Boeing 727-100 and Douglas DC-6B. Two Grumman HU-16 Albatross aircraft would fly the Chuuk (TKK) to Pohnpei (PNI) route until the latter's airfield could accommodate a jetliner.

 

Operating in such remote environments came with some notable modifications to the aircraft. The 727, in particular, had Teflon coating its underbelly as it operated on coral runways. This coating, in addition to special tires, would protect the fuselage from potential damage by rocks as it took off or landed. Furthermore, the planes would carry spare parts, a mechanic, open-water survival gear, and onboard Doppler radar. The aircraft also had more powerful engines to operate on the shorter runways.

 



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Eventually, Air Mike was fully taken over by Continental Airlines and was renamed "Continental Micronesia". The newly-branded carrier continued to use the "Air Mike" callsign. By 1983, the airline was operating all-jet aircraft on the route. These were all-passenger Boeing 727-100 and 727-200s and some 727-100 Combi (mixed passenger and freight) aircraft.

 

File:Boeing 727-100 (United Airlines) (16279316443).jpg
A United Airlines Boeing 727-100 in November 1964 | Photo: Flickr

 

According to William H. Stewart of the Saipan Tribune, the foundation of Air Micronesia was "probably the single most important factor in the future development of what were once remote and isolated islands in the Pacific." The service was vital to various Micronesian islands, serving as their only proper link to the rest of the world and bringing them closer to major Asian markets.

 

Initially, the Island Hopper had seven stops, one more than the current service. Between 1969 and 1970, the service stopped in Johnston Atoll regularly. Later, in 1993/1994, two of the three weekly Island Hopper runs would skip Johnston Atoll. The Johnston Atoll stop was axed when plans to ship and store chemical munitions on the atoll were made. Eventually, the Boeing 727s flying the Island Hopper service were retired and replaced with Boeing 737NG aircraft, namely the -700 and -800.

 

In April 1998, the Island Hopper was reduced to twice weekly service on Mondays and Fridays. However, the thrice-weekly service was restored, and the Wednesday service returned in 1999. The route skipped Chuuk (TKK) for roughly six months due to the airport's runway receiving upgrades.

 

File:Boeing 727-22, United Airlines AN0224285.jpg
A United Airlines Boeing 727-100 in March 2002 | Photo: Airliners.net

 

While many were skeptical of the Island Hopper's viability when it started back in 1968, it proved to be very successful. Continental Micronesia was financially successful in 1995, primarily thanks to the Island Hopper. In 2008, the route alone accounted for 30% of Continental Micronesia's business. However, once 2012 rolled around, Continental Airlines merged with United Airlines. Thankfully, this did not spell the end of the Island Hopper, which continued to operate under United.

 



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Present-Day

 

Today, the Island Hopper operates as flights UA154 (to Guam) and UA155 (to Honolulu). The route goes as follows:

 

  • Honolulu, Hawai'i (HNL) - Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands (MAJ)
  • Majuro - Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands (KWA)
  • Kwajalein - Kosrae, Micronesia (KSA); only served twice-weekly 
  • Kosrae - Pohnpei, Micronesia (PNI)
  • Pohnpei - Chuuk, Micronesia (TKK)
  • Chuuk - Guam (GUM)

 

Like the days of Continental Micronesia, the current Island Hoppers operate with a mechanic, an extra set of spare parts, and four pilots on each flight. Furthermore, the front rows of the Economy Class cabin can be collapsed to accommodate stretchers in case of medical evacuation.

 

Photo: Christopher Arboleda | AeroXplorer

 

Two pilots fly the leg from Honolulu to Majuro while the other two fly the remaining legs. Honolulu to Majuro is the longest segment on the Island Hopper, clocking in at around four hours. Passengers in all classes receive full meal services, unlike flights of similar length in the Continental United States.

 

However, the rest of the segments are short, not exceeding 90 minutes in flight time. The Honolulu - Guam journey takes 16 hours on the Island Hopper, including time on the ground at each stop. Each stop lasts 35-45 minutes, during which passengers can disembark and reboard, except for the Kwajalein Atoll stop.

 

Kwajalein is currently an active United States Military base, meaning passengers are prohibited from leaving the aircraft unless they have governmental permission. Furthermore, they cannot take photos or videos of the island. UA154/155 is operated by the Boeing 737-800. Since many of the island runways are short, fire trucks usually wait alongside the runway when the plane lands. This is in case the tires need cooling after some harsh braking action when slowing down.

 

Photo: Daniel Mena | AeroXplorer

 

Like its predecessors on the route, United Airlines rotates a certain number of 737-800s in and out of the Micronesia flights. Usually, a particular aircraft will not operate Micronesia flights for more than two years due to the risk of corrosion. In addition to the Island Hopper, United operates a large number of destinations from Guam with its 737-800s, including Tokyo Narita (NRT), Manila (MNL), and Palau (ROR).

 



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Hadi Ahmad
Lifelong aviation enthusiast raised in Central Illinois. 777 is the best plane BTW.

Comments (11)

Jay Katz Mr Ahmad, I appreciate you writing about the Island Hopper (which operates 4x a week currently). It’s important for people to know how passengers, food, mail, medical supplies, vaccines, etc get distributed throughout the FSM and RMI, two countries that the US has a Free Compact Association with. However, just to clarify a few things on your article, especially about Johnston Atoll. 1. Continental Micronesia operated the B-727-100 and -200 on this route until September 2000. Not sure why you only posted legacy United B-727 aircraft for your article as United B-727 were never used on this route. There are many Continental Micronesia and Air Micronesia aircraft online that you could have chosen. 2. Johnston Atoll was also used on every Hopper from HNL to MAJ until Sept 2000. I know this because I actually operated the last B-727 westbound and we picked up all our spare tires, jacks, and equipment that we had stored there since 1968. We could not make it from HNL-MAJ non stop with the B-727 without a fuel stop in Johnston. Going eastbound, if the weather at Johnston was below minimums and we had a good tailwind we could make it from MAJ-HNL non stop, but it wasn’t the norm. 3. We served Johnston Atoll continuously from 1968-2000 usually picking up or dropping off a dozen passengers at this stop. We even operated day trips from HNL-JON-MAJ-JON-HNL. Even though it was eventually used as a chemical weapons disposal facility, they would shut down various facilities as we approached the Atoll to minimize risk to passengers and crew. The fact that they did this type of work did not stop us from landing there. 4. Continental Micronesia eventually stopped flying there because we started using a B-737-800 in Sept 2000 and the range of this aircraft allowed us to overfly this “fuel stop”. About a year later Johnston Atoll was decommissioned and all inhabitants (USAF and contract personnel) were removed. 5. As for Chuuk, this runway was the last one we operated to made with crushed coral (along with Majuro, etc) as you mentioned. As Sept 2000 approved with the launch of the B-737-800 we advised TKK they need to pave the runway or we would not be able to serve the island with the low engines on the new aircraft. The B-727 high engines avoided much of the damage from coral debris. So TKK spent a long time to pave the runway and they were ready in time for the first eastbound B-737-800 in Sept 2000. 6. In almost 30 years of operating the island hopper I’ve never had a fire truck cool my tires. However we do have brake cooling fans stored at the short runways (TKK PNI KSA) in case they are needed. However since we switched to carbon brakes years ago, they are rarely used. The fire trucks are required to be present at the airport by federal regulation in case of emergency. That is why they are there. If the airport fire trucks are being used to fight a fire somewhere else on the island then we cannot take off or land. Again, I appreciate you writing the article. Feel free to ask the pilots next time you’re onboard for additional factual information about this important journey. Thank you.
45d ago • Reply
Dennis Addison Thanks for the great article. Jay’s comments are right on the mark. I provided ATC services to those islands for many years starting in 1984. I did get the chance to fly the island hopper once on the flight deck which was a great experience after controlling the islands for many years.
zFPWdwPk 20
45d ago • Reply
Patrick Mathews Jay, Well said and with knowledge and authority. I flew this route a couple of times in the late 70's when handling the international advertising for Continental/Air Mike. In those days CO used a 727 100 's in a combi-pax/cargo configuration. That route then included stops at Johnson island, and Kwajalein. The bellies of the aircraft were coated in teflon to protect the airplane from coral damage as most remote strips as mentioned were so constructed. I have wonderful memories of those days and well appreciate just how important those multi stop flight were to those isolated outpost of Micronesia. Coincidentally my cousin, Michael Munro based in Guam flew for CO and then UA and sadly is now deceased. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.
45d ago • Reply
zFPWdwPk 20
45d ago • Reply
zFPWdwPk 20
45d ago • Reply
zFPWdwPk 20
45d ago • Reply
44d ago • Reply
Sky King Just flew the HNL-GUM flight this month and while it was the 777-300 it was still fun to see all the islands as we passed over. Also took the GUM-ROR and experienced the 737 configured as you stated - although there were only three pilots total - the port side first row of First Class was configured with footrests and deeper reclines for crew rest. Did not notice a mechanic, but that could be because it was not on the island hopper route. Thanks for explaining how critical this route is to these islands!
44d ago • Reply
Bunky Air Mike did serve Midway for a time in the 1970s. I'm not sure if Johnson Island was unavailable for a time. Per Wiki "Continental Micronesia served Midway with Boeing 727-100 jetliners during the early 1970s although the airport was only used as an "operational stop" on this airline's westbound service from Honolulu to Guam. The routing of these 727 flights was Honolulu - Midway Island - Kwajalein - Majuro - Ponape - Truk - Guam". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henderson_Field_(Midway_Atoll)
44d ago • Reply
Brett Webster Jay, Thanks for the refresher. I believe the 727-100 combi’s were named Nuju and Juju.
40d ago • Reply

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ROUTES Island Hopper United Airlines Micronesia Air Micronesia Boeing Boeing 737-800 Hawaii Guam Continental Micronesia Pacific Routes

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