United Flight 154, service from Honolulu to Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Guam. United Flight 185, service from Guam to Yap. These are the routes for the Micronesian island hopper, lovingly referred to in the airline community as “Continental Mic”, a throwback to the pre-merger days.
The island hopper is something of a bucket list item to airline employees. Once day trips to Europe and round-the-world-in-a-weekend standby trips become pedestrian, the island hopper becomes an obscure right of passage. No introduction to FSM is complete without discussing the ins and outs of this experience.
I have come to know the island hopper as a flying experience unlike any other. I’ve now flown twice, and have twice encountered long delays and cancellations. One might think this anecdotal evidence merely coincidence or bad luck, but trust, I have spoken with a handful of people who have flown the route regularly, and the stories are always the same. In fact, several locals said they preferred the service when Continental ran it. Ruminate on that for a moment.
Sometimes it’s the weather, sometimes it’s just an old plane out in the middle of the ocean with few parts and mechanics to spare, but it’s always something. I don’t see how this route possibly makes any money, considering many of the locals fly standby and when they inevitably get stuck somewhere along the way, United has to dole out hotel and food vouchers to everyone regardless of status. But I digress.
Even without the delays and cancellations, spending a few hours on the island hopper offers a foreigner a brief glimpse at the intricacies of Micronesian culture. Here’s how a typical day on the island hopper might go for you:
12:00 p.m. You arrive to the airport 2 hours early, as suggested. You wait patiently in line to drop your luggage for over an hour, as a portly woman in a Chuukese muumuu checks 8 igloo coolers ahead of you. These coolers are filled with a variety of fish and produce, some to sell and some to give to their family wherever they are traveling. You pay your $70 baggage fee (inexplicably $30 more than last time because your flight originated in Honolulu), your $20 exit fee and move toward the security line.
2:45 p.m. When the security gate finally opens 45 minutes later than scheduled, you dutifully power up all your electronic devices for the agent. Your carry-on luggage is thoroughly rifled through before you are cleared.
3:00 p.m. You cool yourself with a handmade fan you purchased from the woman selling crafts in the corner while you wait in the open-air terminal. You try to connect to the “free wi-fi”, but the bandwidth is inadequate to support everyone.
3:30 p.m. There is an announcement that the incoming flight has been delayed due to weather in the area and you’ll be updated in 15 minutes. In 45 minutes you get the first update; the plane is en route and cleared for landing. You watch from the gate as it makes two failed attempts to land. Each time it circles off in the distance you fear it will skip on to the next island, as it is wont to do. Luckily today the pilot tries one more time, and comes screeching to a halt on the short, wet airstrip.
4:30 p.m. You walk in the hot rain across the tarmac to board. You find a woman, wearing a nunu (flower headband) and chatting to her neighbor excitedly in Pohnpeian, in your assigned seat, so you snag the empty row behind them. That’s a win for you as you stretch out your legs on the bumpy flight. Before take-off, the flight attendants remind everyone that smoking and betel nut chewing is prohibited on all United flights.
6:00 p.m. When you land on the next island, all passengers seated on the right side of the plane and standby passengers are asked to deplane with their carry-on items. Everyone remaining onboard must bring down and hold their carry-ons in their seats. Security officials sweep through the cabin, checking under cushions and headrests and claiming articles left by the deplaned passengers. For some reason they confiscate all the blankets, so you’re left freezing for the next leg of the journey.
7:15 p.m. You land one stop away from your final destination. The security sweep concludes, the new passengers board and you wait for an announcement from the pilot to prepare for takeoff. You notice the cabin is starting to feel warm, but you assure yourself that you’ll be on the way soon, so the air conditioning will kick back then. You lose track of time, until you see the flight attendants coming down the aisle with cups of water. Eventually the pilot admits there is a mechanical issue, and everyone will need to deplane until it is fixed.
8:00 p.m. Everyone shuffles into the small departures gate and waits. And waits. A few hours in and the flight attendants pass out water. Another hour, cookies. Next hour, soda. The turkey sandwiches come out and that’s when you know, you’ll be sleeping on this island tonight.
12:15 a.m. You are hastily shuffled through immigrations, your passport receiving an unexpected new stamp. The flight attendants and gate agents masterfully coordinate the issuance of hotel and food vouchers ($7 on an island whose average dinner price is $25) and arrangement of transportation. Some passengers elect to call friends and family on the island instead of taking the voucher, which worries you a little. You hope you got the “good” hotel, and it turns out you are in luck. Once checked-in, you purchase a pre-paid internet card to inform those expecting you on the next island that you’ll (hopefully) see them tomorrow.
5:30 p.m. The next day you repeat the process until you finally hop onto your final destination.
As a disclaimer, the weather and the old planes can wreak havoc on your travel plans, but I do have to say the United flight attendants, pilots and gate agents do a great job at being resourceful, managing the setbacks and staying positive. Next time you’re stranded on a Marshall Island, pop in and say hello to the pilot who is stuck there with you.
Have you flown the Micronesian island hopper? Share your experience in the comments!