Lee Cataluna: Saying Aloha To Hawaiian Airlines - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Audrey Kwok and Glenn Awakuni started working at Hawaiian Airlines at a time when flight attendants didn’t need to pack overnight bags because every flight was interisland.

They flew when the airline first expanded service to the West Coast, back when inflight movies were actual film strips run through a projector. They served plane loads of soldiers when Hawaiian provided military transports during Desert Storm.  They’ve flown millions of miles. Served millions of cups of guava juice. Spent untold hours away from their families.

Their last act of service to the airline is to leave the jobs they loved.

Awakuni tried to explain. He’s sad for it to end this way. At the same time, he’s happy to take the place of a younger person who would otherwise lose their job.

Hawaiian Air flight attendant
Glenn Awakuni appeared in this ad for the airline in the 1990s. Submitted

“I’m going to really miss wearing the uniform,” he said. “When you’re wearing a Hawaiian Airlines uniform, you’re so proud.”

Kwok and Awakuni accepted a volunteer Early Out program from the airlines, taking retirement sooner than they had planned with the hope of sparing a younger flight attendant from involuntary furlough. They are two of 682 flight attendants who made this choice.

The economic impact of the pandemic led the airline to cut flights and announce mass layoffs. That triggered the start of negotiations between the company and unions representing the employees. Awakuni had to decide whether to accept the retirement deal.

Awakuni, 68, flew with Hawaiian for 42 years. “Those were all good years,” he said.

When he started, he was newly married and had been laid off from his job. He had been a diesel mechanic, working on heavy equipment on construction sites like Kipapa Bridge, Aloha Stadium and the Reef Runway. He got to see all those projects being built, and he enjoyed his work. Forced to look for something new, his wife’s friend encouraged him to apply to the airlines.

He was something of a trail blazer back then — a man stepping into what was thought of as a woman’s job. Awakuni went through Hawaiian Airlines’ training program in the class of 1978, which was only the third year the program had male students.

“I was very nervous,” he said. “I had never worked with women before.”

But the former diesel mechanic loved the work and enjoyed his coworkers. “I always thought it was a greatest job in the world,” he said.

Audrey Kwok started her career at Hawaiian Airlines in 1969. She was a student at the University of Hawaii working toward a bachelor’s degree with plans to go to law school when she spotted an ad in the newspaper that said Hawaiian was recruiting new flight attendants. She was 20 years old when she started, juggling her college courses during the week and flying interisland on the weekends. Soon, she realized flying would be her life.

Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant retires
Audrey Kwok started working for Hawaiian Airlines in 1969. She hadn’t planned to retire yet, but agreed to an Early Out program offered by the company struggling to deal with losses due to the pandemic. Lee Cataluna/Civil Beat/2020

In 50 years of flying, Kwok has a trove of great stories to tell, but the one that stands out happened on a nighttime flight from Kona to Honolulu on March 17, 1978. That was the Hawaiian Airlines flight that saved Hokulea when the sailing canoe overturned in the water, the incident when Eddie Aikau was lost at sea.

The pilot of that flight, Art Daegling, spotted a flare shooting up from the ocean. He thought he saw an SOS flashing in the sea below. Daegling radioed the Honolulu control tower to report what he had seen, but was told there were no reports of missing boats or vessels in distress, so he should continue on his flight plan. Instead, Daegling told Kwok to look out the plane’s window for any signal or beacon from the sea.

“When you look out of the window of a plane flying over the ocean at night, it’s so black. It’s just the vastness of all that darkness,” she said. “I told him, ‘No, I can’t see anything.” But he told me, ‘Keep looking!’”

She did. Meanwhile, first officer Butch Avallone flew the plane in a wide circle around the area.

And then, incredibly, she spotted a light, just a pinpoint in all that dark ocean, a tiny pulsating beacon. She alerted the pilot, who got the coordinates for the location and contacted the Coast Guard, which sent out rescue boats.

Kwok remembers the passengers being told that they were circling because they thought someone was in trouble in the ocean and the crew was trying to find them. “They were quiet. I remember that none of the passengers complained,” she said.

It wasn’t until the next day that the Hawaiian Airlines crew realized the vessel in distress had been Hokulea with a crew of 15 in the water, clinging to life.

When Kwok tells that story, she’s proud of the captain and the first officer who didn’t dismiss a faint call for help. She’s proud of the airline, and of the passengers on that flight who didn’t panic when the plane started circling and didn’t get mad when they landed a little late. But as for her role in the rescue, she was just doing her job.

Awakuni may have helped save some lives over the years. People get sick on airplanes all the time, and he’s a first responder.

In 1991, after flying with Hawaiian for 13 years, Awakuni joined the Honolulu Fire Department. For 26 years, he juggled both schedules while raising three children with his wife Gloria. At first, though, he didn’t tell his coworkers in the fire station that he was also a flight attendant.

“I was assigned to the Waianae Station. I had been there for several months. One day, I was flying on the Dash, the prop plane, to Molokai. This team of canoe paddlers boarded the flight. They were on their way to paddle the Molokai channel. One of the paddlers was my co-worker from the fire station. He looks at me and goes, ‘Oh my god. It’s YOU!’”

Awakuni said by the time he went back to his next shift at the station, the entire West Side knew that the new recruit was a flight attendant. His nickname was “stewardess” in the fire station for quite some time. Over the years, though, other fire fighters asked for his counsel as they sought a second job as a flight attendant.

Flight attendant takes early leave
Glenn Awakuni wasn’t ready to leave his job at Hawaiian Airlines, but decided it was the right thing to do. Lee Cataluna/Civil Beat/2020

Awakuni retired from HFD in 2016, but had hoped to keep working at the airline.

Kwok wasn’t ready to retire, but she takes comfort that her son now works for Hawaiian. He’s a first officer on the new Airbus 321. Her family is still part of the Hawaiian Airlines family.

Awakuni has been thinking about his early years at the airline. In the 1980s, Hawaiian Airlines went through financial challenges, and the senior flight attendants took voluntary leaves to help their younger counterparts. Someone back then saved his job. That helped him make his decision now that he’s in the senior role.

“It was really hard,” he said. “It was the most difficult decision I ever had to make. I could have gone a few more years.”

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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

I know several Hawaiian Air employees that have taken voluntary month long furloughs to help out.  These employees have such great aloha indeed!  

surferx808 · 3 years ago

All the best to these Hawaiian Airline employees retiring to ensure jobs are retained for the next generation.   Being a former employee of the airlines, the last being Aloha Airlines, wearing the uniform represents not just the company but a culture, it's people - at Hawaiian as well as at Aloha, we represented HAWAII. Be proud with your years of service and God Bless you and your family during your retirement!  Aloha No Ka Ko, Pumehana, Aloha Ke a Kua!  

kwaitim · 3 years ago

Great story and self-sacrifice!

jko96797 · 3 years ago

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