Source: Hawaiian Airlines


Crewmembers of February’s HA90 ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi flight.
  • An aircraft cabin isn’t your typical setting for learning a new language – that is unless you’re traveling on Hawaiian Airlines.

More of the carrier’s guests have experienced ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) at up to 41,000 feet, thanks to employees who are perpetuating the language and normalizing its use by incorporating it into the flight experience. Translations are available throughout our cabin, from seat numbers and wall signage to safety videos and announcements. Out of all of Hawaiian’s efforts to honor Hawaiʻi’s native tongue, the most impactful has been bilingual exchanges between its employees and guests.

Cue the ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi flight, a travel experience driven by teams passionate about the indigenous language. They hail from departments across the company, including marketing, in-flight and airport operations.

“I’m always thinking about the Hawaiian language,” said Manakō Tanaka, senior specialist in community and cultural relations, who is among the flights’ organizers. “We are always trying to find the next meaningful opportunity to celebrate ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and plant those seeds with our guests and among our non-speaking colleagues.”

Since 2019, nine ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi flights have been organized across the carrier’s network, from Neighbor Island routes to longer haul flights like Tokyo, Portland and Boston – engaging thousands of guests from around the world.

Here is what goes into making an ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi flight meaningful and possible:

Finding the right moment

According to Tanaka, the flights are often planned to mark a special occasion, such as a route anniversary or Mahina ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian Language Month). For example, in 2018, a group of in-flight and airport operations employees – many Hawaiian language immersion school graduates – came together to host one of Hawaiian’s first ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi flights, HA18 (Honolulu-Las Vegas). The flight was organized to honor and celebrate a special guest that day: Dr. Larry Kimura, who taught many of the HA18 crewmembers and is considered the grandfather of the Hawaiian language revitalization movement.

Earlier this year, Hawaiian hosted the first language flight for its Boston service to commemorate Mahina ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, welcoming guests at the gate and onboard the aircraft with bilingual announcements. The crew offered guests translation cards with useful phrases such as “I _____ na‘u ke ‘olu‘olu” (May I please have _____) and educational coloring sheets for keiki (children). During their layover, employees visited the Peabody Essex Museum to pay homage to the Hawaiian god Kū, who is depicted in a six-foot-plus-tall wooden relic displayed at a gallery.

In total, the carrier’s nine ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi flights have covered:

  • 2018: Honolulu-Hilo for Merrie Monarch
  • 2018: Honolulu-Las Vegas to honor Dr. Larry Kimura
  • 2019: Kona-Haneda for the route’s second anniversary
  • 2022: Honolulu-Kona for Mahina ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi
  • 2022: Kahului-Portland, Honolulu-Kona for Mahina ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi
  • 2023: Kahului-Las Vegas for Mahina ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi
  • 2023: Honolulu-Rarotonga for inauguration of service
  • 2024: Honolulu-Long Beach to welcome traveling students and their families and teachers from Hawaiian language immersion preschool Pūnana Leo
  • 2024: Honolulu-Boston for Mahina ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi

Finding the right people

To lift the language across the company, in 2019 Hawaiian partnered with the University of Hawai‘i – West O‘ahu to establish a language certification program for ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. Today, 23 qualified speakers have tested and qualified for the certification and now bear the Hae Hawaiʻi (Hawaiʻi state flag) on their name tags, joining other colleagues who are certified in Japanese, Chinese, French, Korean and Samoan.

“There are plenty of fluent speakers who haven’t gone for the test or just have not completed the process yet,” Tanaka said. “Hawaiian has many employees, including managers and leaders, who can speak very well and are involved in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi flights too.”

Finding the right format

Each ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi flight is unique. For example, language resources, like the translation cards and keiki activities, are often tailored to fit the type of flight (i.e. a long-haul international flightvs a short Neighbor Island trip), beckoning colleagues from across the company to help create the right setting.

“There’s a shared appreciation and connection to the language within our company that we have been able to tap into,” Tanaka shared. “When we get ready for these flights, many people are working together behind the scenes to do something.”

During the flight, guests are welcomed with a mix of required safety/service announcements and impromptu callouts as crewmembers are encouraged to add their personal touch to the experience.

“These flights can be a little nerve-wracking,” admitted Kekoa “Halemano” Kalahiki, an ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi-speaking flight attendant who worked the recent ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi flight between Honolulu and Long Beach. “I’m always terrified I’ll fumble over my words, so I spent the night before my trip reviewing vocabulary and practicing my announcements. In the end, everything went well and my experience was amazing.”

Regardless of the route or celebration, Hawaiian’s ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi flights are organized to immerse Hawaiʻi residents and visitors in the language.

“Normalizing a language means making it approachable, accessible and applicable. So, when we contemplate opportunities to engage with our employees and guests in this unique way, we need to make sure everyone feels comfortable. We keep the introduction simple and relevant, focus on making sure what our guests learn can be applied throughout their trip, and empower our employees – many of whom are native Hawaiian – to play a significant role in the effort,” Tanaka explained.

To Kalahiki, fostering language exchanges helps people from different places connect and better understand each other.

“Language is key to understanding a people and their worldview. Our aircraft cabins carry so many different people every day, so the opportunities for our guests to experience a cultural exchange are numerous,” he said.

“When I speak ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi, my goal is to reach our kaiāulu ʻōlelo (language community) – especially our keiki ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (young speakers); it’s important they experience our language as something viable. So, through work like this, I hope to maintain and expand space for our language wherever Hawaiian Airlines travels,” Kalahiki added.

Hawaiian doesn’t have a set schedule for its ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi flights and will continue to surprise and delight guests as more authentic opportunities to foster lasting connections with Hawaiʻi and its culture arise.

Tanaka added, “I hope that when our guests go home – whether home is in Honolulu or Boston – they bring their ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi experience with them into their community and help us continue breathing life into the language’s future.”