Before moving to the South Pacific, I’d never been on a truly small commercial aircraft. I’d flown major Asian, European, American, and Australian carriers, all with rigid safety requirements and boarding announcements that reminded passengers not to crowd the lavatory near the cockpit.
Then, I moved to Fiji.
Island hop flight horror stories around the South Pacific tend to be like shark attack, lightning strike, or winning the lottery stories. Someone always knows someone with these experiences, but nobody knows someone firsthand. I only have a semi-traumatic firsthand (so your secondhand) story. A friend once told me that he was on a domestic Fiji flight. Upon landing, the pilot skid into the grass beyond the landing strip and the plane wheels got stuck in the mud. The passengers disembarked as if nothing had happened, trodding their carry-ons through the mud.
Needless to say, these flights offer no comfort when it comes to easing flight anxiety.
But despite all the stories, island hop flights can be a safe, scenic, and economical way to get around. Oftentimes, a 30-minute flight can save you over ten hours spent on a bus or ferry–both methods of transport that also have ‘horror stories’ of their own.
What are island hop flights, anyways?
Island hop flights are also known as ‘puddle jumpers.’ Planes tend to be small and service airports that consist of one tiny landing strip. They’re also notorious reputations for running off schedule. Think old Cessna planes built sometime between 1927 and 1997. There is no cockpit door separating passengers from the pilot, and one of the passengers sat alongside the pilot–an arms reach away from driving us into the open ocean.
This flights are not to be confused with the official Island Hopper flight, served by United. Unlike most island hop flights, this flight is served by a Boeing 787-800. But because most landing strips were built to serve smaller aircraft, fire trucks remain on standby at some airports to cool the plane’s tires and brakes in an emergency.
If you are not on the official Island Hopper, chances are you will be taking a small plane. Here is what to expect on your first South Pacific remote flight. From now on, island hopper flight simply refers to a flight where you’ll be on a very small–less than 20 person capacity–plane.
You might be weighed along with your luggage
When you check into the airport, you will first place your checked baggage onto a scale–just as you would with any other flight. Weight limits for smaller aircraft tend to be lower than flights served on large aircraft. Think 25-30lbs rather than 50 lbs. So if you’re taking an international flight and then an island hop flight, you will have to pack for the flight with the lighter weight limit.
Then, you will be asked to step on the scale. Sometimes, the weight is displayed to the rest of the line (think old-school scale where the needle springs to your weight). Other times, the scale is more discreet. If this makes you uncomfortable, you can request to stand on the scale while carrying your carry-on baggage.
The check-in counter often assigns your seat number based on your weight.
There may not be a barrier between you and the pilot
Coming from the United States, I have always been used to tight aviation security. I was surprised to see that on my first island hop flight in the South Pacific that there is there no barrier separating me from the pilot, and sometimes, a passenger is seated alongside the pilot.
If you want to see the action, request a seat at the front of the plane. You’ll be able to watch the pilot fiddle with the controls and it’ll feel as though you’re an aviation insider.
It will be noisy
Flights on small aircraft tend to be much noisier than your typical long-haul planes. There is no pressurization, and you may even get wet if the windows are down and your pilot flies through a rainstorm. Pack a pair of ear plugs for your flight to keep the ringing at bay.
It’s might not be as smooth as you think
As a general rule, the smaller the aircraft, the more affected it is by the weather. This is why large Airbus A380s can blow through hectic weather conditions without any drinks rattling on a tray table. Meanwhile, smaller planes are grounded.
Because smaller planes are more sensitive, you might feel more turbulence than on a large flight. Note that turbulence does not equate to danger.
Ready to fly?
With these expectations in mind, your first island hop flight might be a fun adventure rather than an anxiety-inducing experience. Every time I board, I am grateful that such scenic flights can get me from point A to B safely.