Michael And Kelly Feeney
By Katie Young
Attention, passengers: “Good evening from the flight deck, ladies and gentlemen, this is Capt. Michael Feeney speaking. We’re beginning our descent into beautiful British Columbia and it looks like nothing but clear skies ahead.
“I expect we’ll be touching down in about 20 minutes. My little sister Kelly is the first officer today, so if we have a smooth landing, remember I was at the controls; if it’s a bad one, well, let’s say Kelly landed the plane.”
While Michael, 37, may never actually joke like this to a plane full of people, he notes that flying with his sister Kelly, 32, as his co-pilot will certainly be a momentous occasion.
That’s because at the end of this month the siblings, both pilots for Aloha Airlines, will make history by being the first brother/sister pair in the nation to pilot a commercial airliner together.
While the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) keeps no official record of these types of accomplishments, a spokesperson for the organization says they’ve heard of pilot teams including father/son, brother/brother, mother/son and even father/daughter, but never a brother/sister pair.
For Michael and Kelly, the accomplishment means much more than just a national record. Aviation runs in the family. Their father, Jim, is a former professional musician and retired Aloha Airlines pilot, and their mother, Christa, is a former stewardess for Canadian Pacific, who now owns a real estate company.
Michael and Kelly’s parents will join them on this significant flight — a journey the siblings are hoping will be a five-hour flight from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Vancouver, Canada.
“My parents will be going on a cruise starting in Canada at the end of the month and it’s not good enough to just drive them to the airport, they want us to drive them to Vancouver,” laughs Michael, who is also involved with ALPA union leadership.
As big brothers and little sisters do, Michael and Kelly, both graduates of Punahou School who sought independent flight training, do their share of ribbing each other about the upcoming flight together.
“I get my choice of meals on the plane because I’m the captain,” says Michael.
Kelly shoots him a dirty look.
“See?” Michael says. “If I don’t give her what she wants to eat, she’ll tell my mother. The captain always gets first pick, but in this case, I definitely won’t be getting what I want.”
But all joking aside, the two Feeneys, who learned to fly before they could drive, thought they’d never see the day when they could sit side-by-side, piloting a commercial airliner together.
It’s a difficult task, even if you work for the same airline, to pilot a plane together, says Michael. It’s hard enough to get on the same flight, and then your seniority level has to be such where one person is a captain and one is a first officer.
“Once Kelly upgrades to captain, we’ll never be able to pilot together again,” says Michael.
But the biggest obstacle was this: Their dad, Jim Feeney, was a pilot for Aloha Airlines for 32 years. Because of the airline’s nepotism policy, Michael (who has now been with Aloha for 15 years) couldn’t fly for the airline until his dad retired. Once Michael worked for Aloha, Kelly couldn’t fly for Aloha.
A little over a year ago, the policy was finally abolished.
“As soon as that happened, I said, ‘Bring me home!’” Kelly remembers.
Just a few days ago, she made one year as an Aloha Airlines pilot, but Kelly has had years of experience flying for other carriers.
While Michael was the youngest pilot to be hired by Aloha at age 23, Kelly spent the early part of her career flying for Mahalo Air and was the airline’s first female ATR 42 captain at age 24.
Kelly spent two years flying for Continental Express and commuted 5,000 miles from Hawaii to New York for her job. She also flew for Northwest for four years doing the international route and commuted from Hawaii to Detroit for that job.
“And you thought traffic on the H-1 was bad,” says Michael.
“It took me two days just to get to work,” laughs Kelly.
Bringing Kelly home to fly for Aloha was all about timing. After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, many airlines were forced to furlow up to 20 percent of their pilots. Kelly was among the pilots furlowed by Northwest.
“Aloha was one of the few airlines that has kept expanding,” explains Michael. “We’re now in 11 West Coast markets. I think Aloha has modified their business plan for a post-9-11 world. We fly only into secondary airports. We don’t go to Los Angeles or San Francisco.”
When their father was a pilot for Aloha, the airline only traveled routes to the Neighbor Islands. In his career, Jim Feeney made over 10,000 landings on Maui alone.
Today, with more than 300 employed pilots, Aloha Airlines services routes to Vancouver, Reno, Oakland, Sacramento, Burbank, Orange County, Las Vegas, Phoenix and areas in the South Pacific including Pago Pago, Rarotonga and Majuro.
“People don’t have to deal with the hassle of flying into a big airport,” says Kelly. “Aloha has a real niche service. People love our meals, which are made by Chef Alan Wong, and you get a complimentary mai tai when you board.
After the movie they give you hot baked cookies with milk. So where everyone else is just giving you peanuts, Aloha wants to be known for their service.”
While guests in the plane are comfortably resting with their home-bakedsnacks, it’s a little different story for the pilots in the cockpit.
Squeezing into a space no bigger than a small walk-in closet, post 9-11 flying requires that the pilots be locked into the cockpit during the flight behind a bullet-proof door.
“We can’t walk around like we used to,” says Michael. “Before 9-11 we could take breaks to move our legs and just walk up and down the aisle and talk to passengers. Now there are procedures even if we have to get up to use the bathroom.”
Everything is such a hassle, says Michael. And more than that, everyone is suspicious, and you’re constantly watching out for a threat.
“I think it’s always in the back of your mind, that you just want to be able to take people to go play golf on Maui, and somewhere out there, someone is trying to take that lifestyle away. And you are the frontline defense on it.”
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the joy of flying.
“Once the cockpit door is shut, it’s the same,” says Michael. “It’s fun to fly.
They pay us to have an experience that other people spend a lot of money on video games to do.”
Sometimes another perk of being a commercial airline pilot is shmoozing with celebrities.
“I just flew Tommy Lee the other day and we got invited to his party at The
Palms in Las Vegas,” says Michael, who’s also flown people like Michael Jackson and the late Bruddah Iz. “Our dad used to fly Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra all the time.”
“I flew Pierce Brosnon once,” adds Kelly. “Oh, and Michael flew Kristi Yamaguchi and Batman (the original Adam West). They were sitting next to each other and neither one knew who the other was.”
“So I said, ‘Kristi Yamaguchi, meet Batman. Batman, this is Kristi Yamaguchi, Olympic figure skater,” says Michael.
Another perk of being a pilot is being able to travel all around the world. It’s something the Feeney siblings grew up with. Their parents had taken them to almost every continent before they graduated from high school.
Kelly has been to London, Amsterdam, Osaka and Kuala Lumpur, among other places. Sometimes traveling to foreign lands can prove challenging, such as the time Michael recalls he tried to rent a pig in northern France to hunt for truffles.
“I wandered around for three days and no one would rent me anything but a goat,” says Michael. “I asked, ‘Is it a truffle-hunting goat?’ The man replied,
‘No, it’s just my goat.’ It was a failed adventure.”
Kelly was the one to beat Michael to the seventh and final continent, Antarctica, in 2002, but Michael answered back later that summer by going without Kelly to Tombouctou, Mali, West Africa.
“We’ve done a lot of traveling together, though,” says Kelly. “We’ve run with the bulls together in Pamplona, Spain, and we just did that huge tomato fight they have in Bunol, Spain. We also did shark dives in Tahiti.”
Between the excitement of getting to travel the world and the fun of operating the plane itself, both Feeneys say there was never a time they didn’t want to be a pilot.
“I just love airplanes,” says Michael, who along with Kelly also obtained a business degree from a Northern California university. “It’s that simple. I could either go to work or I could fly.”
Kelly adds, “I was on the Checkers and Pogo show when I was 5 and Pogo asked me what I was going to be when I grew up and I said, ‘An airline pilot.’ He probably thought I was crazy at the time because there weren’t many female pilots at that time. Right now only about 3 percent of pilots in the industry are female.”
Michael, who also owned the Kapahulu Internet Café from 1994-99, agrees that if someone had told their dad when Kelly was born that someday his son and daughter would be flying together for Aloha, he probably would have laughed.
That’s why the whole family was in tears the day Jim Feeney passed on his second set of pilot’s wings to daughter Kelly. Michael got Dad’s other pair 15 years prior.
“You basically have two sets of wings,” explains Michael. “It’s pretty much unheard of to have your two kids flying with your wings. If you look at other pilots, they have nice, shiny, pretty gold wings. Mine are bent and a little bit worn. But it’s something that’s so important to me. I refuse to polish them; these wings have almost 50 years of dirt on them now.”
“There’s some people I fly with now and I’m their third Feeney,” says Kelly.
“When I retire at age 60, that means Feeneys will have been flying for Aloha Airlines for 75 years.”
Both siblings also love how the history of their family is intertwined with this one local airline carrier.
“One of the best things about going to work every day at Aloha is I fly with these flight attendants and pilots who have flown with my dad, who was nicknamed ‘Gentleman Jim,’” says Kelly. “I get to hear the greatest stories about him.”
Michael adds that there are even some “nameless” flight attendants who changed his diapers when he was little (earning him the nickname “Teeny Feeney” from one pilot.)
“Aloha is a different airline,” says Michael. “It’s different than just being a number.”
“It’s nice to be able to go to work and say, ‘Hey, how was your kid’s soccer game?’” adds Kelly. “Growing up it was nice, too, because our dad would be home every night like it was a normal job. If you’re with another airline flying an international flight, you’re gone for 10 to 12 days at a time.”
Though Michael and Kelly do a lot of joking about who is the better pilot, neither one is worried about piloting a flight together.
“I’m extremely confident in my brother’s skills,” says Kelly, pausing to turn to Michael to say, “Now don’t get a big head.
“I’ll never forget when I jumpseated (rode along in the back or the cockpit of the plane) on one of Michael’s flights to Oakland and it was the smoothest greaser of a landing, and I was like, ‘That’s my brother!’”
Michael even brings along a rubber shark, which he balances on one of the control knobs to judge a good landing. If the shark stays on the knob, it’s a great landing. If the shark tumbles off, then the landing could use some work.
Michael adds that pilots, by nature, are just fun people who like their toys.
“And yet, there’s an extremely serious nature to the job, whether it’s landing in a snowstorm or dealing with a security threat or a malfunction on the plane.
“Kelly is a natural pilot, like my father. One of the nice things is that Kelly and I are close; we’re best friends. But when it comes down to flying the plane, I’m absolutely confident there will be total synergy between us.”
And as big brothers also do, Michael is always looking out for his little sis, giving her a small stuffed bear named “Amelia Bearheart” to keep in her flight bag everytime she flies. The bear is the counterpart to “Charles Lindbear,” which Michael’s mom gave him when he began flying.
The greatest thing, however, about flying, says Michael, isn’t the gadgets or the worldly adventures or even the studly uniform.
“There’s something nice about walking off the airplane and seeing the families back together with their leis,” he says. “Mostly, people are always flying for good reasons — family vacations, family reunions, two new lovers.
“When you deliver people safely across the ocean, you feel like you’ve left the day a little bit better than it started.”
The Feeneys are a high-flying family who love life best when they’re up in the clouds — and it looks like nothing but clear skies ahead.