This National Aviation Day, we are proud to kick off a new monthly blog series that outlines the exciting career paths of Hawaiian Airlines’ leaders. We debut this series with Chief Operating Officer Jon Snook, who entered the aviation industry as an airport agent at American Airlines and rose to become one of Hawaiian’s leading minds. For nearly eight years, Snook has been at the helm of all flight operations, in-flight services, guest services, maintenance and engineering and operations analytics for Hawaiʻi’s hometown carrier.
To Hawaiian Airlines Chief Operating Officer Jon Snook, there is nothing quite as extraordinary as placing your bare hands onto the slick metal exterior of an aircraft.
“Think about it: these aircraft carry people around the world at around 500 mph, 35,000 feet in the air. It is just an incredible feat! Every time I’m on the ramp, I can’t help but go up to an aircraft, touch it and think that, in 10-or-so minutes, this thing is going to be flying through the sky, over this massive ocean, with nearly 300 people eating, drinking and watching movies onboard. They are astonishing pieces of technology that still amaze me after nearly 40 years in the industry,” he said.
A love for aviation has clung to Snook since he was a teenager in Manchester, England. He grew up close enough to Manchester Airport that, from his front yard, he could look up and watch small jets and twin-engine planes beginning their climb to cruising altitude.
“I was blessed with knowing that I wanted to be around airplanes from a relatively early age, but I didn’t know how. I was a terrible student with no interest in school and fell in with the wrong crowd. It was obvious to my teachers and me that I wouldn’t be a great university student, so right before I graduated, I started applying for jobs and was able to get a job at a cargo company at the airport,” Snook recalled. “I graduated high school on a Friday, started work on a Monday, and have been working ever since.”
For a year and a half, Snook drove a forklift at Manchester Airport and loaded trucks with cargo that would be transferred to the bellies of long-haul aircraft departing from London Heathrow Airport. Then, in the late summer of 1986, he found his golden ticket into the airline business.
“American Airlines had been out of Europe since the 1950s but returned to England after Braniff International Airways went bust," he said. "They started flying at Manchester Airport and were hiring, so I immediately applied for an airport agent opening and got the job.”
Helping guests and contributing to the operation further sparked his passion for aviation.
“I worked hard and became a lead agent, and then in 1989, American started serving Stockholm. I was young and didn’t have any constraints and was offered a supervisor position at that station, so I packed my car and drove to Sweden. In 1991 my manager returned to the United States, and I took his job and became the station manager,” Snook said. “I thought that was the pinnacle of my career. I was running an airport station for an airline, which was my aspiration. When I started, I always thought about how cool it would be to run an airport and be THE guy!”
Snook attributes his career success to the leaders who nudged him to take on responsibilities that pushed him out of his comfort zone and helped him see his potential.
“My first-ever boss at American, Paul Mallard, was a real people-person who made everyone feel special about their contribution to the operation. Watching him was a learning experience for me. I saw how he interacted with people, recognized them, and gave them responsibilities to push them,” Snook shared. “I remember he put me in charge of the stock room, and it was the worst job I could imagine because back in the day, we didn’t have electronically printed bag tags. We had thousands of preprinted bag tags for every destination we flew. When he said he wanted me to run it, I thought, ‘What a nightmare!’ But he knew that if you make a person responsible for something and recognize their work, they’ll do a good job. He course-corrected me a few times because I was a sloppy kid, but over time I gained pride in ensuring that the stock room was managed well and that everyone had what they needed.
“Barbara Feeser was another manager I’ll never forget,” he added. “She had seen many kids grow up and knew I could do more than I was doing. I just didn’t know it. When I was running the Stockholm station, she called me one day and insisted that I move to London to run the reservations office – and I had absolutely no interest in that. Going to an office and managing people talking on phones…I had no clue about any of that, and it was nowhere near aircraft! But she was insistent that I do that, so I did. If ever there was a pivotal moment in my career, it was that, and it was all because I had a boss who pushed me hard to understand what was good for me.”
Over the next two decades, Snook continued to ride American Airlines’ energetic wave of growth. Company leaders recognized Snook’s ability to be dynamic, learn new things and commit to doing every job well. He tackled countless opportunities, including overseeing reservations, sales, and marketing for markets across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Then, in 2001, Snook was presented with the opportunity to run the carrier’s OneWorld airline alliance at its Dallas headquarters.
“I didn’t want to move to the United States, but all roads at American Airlines lead to Dallas, and so my wife Anette, my kids Julia and Toby, who were just 5 and 3 years old at the time, and I moved to Texas – though I planned on returning to England,” he said. “I did that for a couple of years, and we acquired a bunch of big American furniture over time. Before we could even figure out how to move our stuff back into our small English house, another opportunity arose, this time in airport operations, though still in Texas, running the Central Division of the airport organization. I basically came full circle by going back to airport operations, but that time it came with a better understanding of how other parts of the business work, which was incredibly valuable.”
Snook continued to move up the ladder, even taking on a leadership position for American Eagle, the airline’s regional operation, which was, at the time, the largest of its kind in the world.
“It was a tough job. I made a bunch of mistakes along the way, but I learned a lot. I met Peter Ingram (Hawaiian Airlines president and CEO) at American Eagle when he was the chief financial officer and Brent Overbeek (Hawaiian Airlines senior vice president and chief revenue officer), who ran revenue management. I even worked with Theo Panagiotoulias (Hawaiian Airlines senior vice president of global sales and alliances) at American. We were all peers – so everything has really come full circle when I think about it,” he said.
After 28 years in various roles and the 2013 merger between US Airways and American Airlines, Snook decided it was time to unclip his airline badge and focus on his family. “It felt like the right time for me to punch out. Working for American was a cool ride. None of it was planned; I just worked hard, had good mentors, and – I didn’t know this at the time – had impeccable timing with joining the industry,” he said.
Snook took the downtime to cheer his son in varsity high school sports, play recreational soccer and golf with friends, and even invent and patent various gadgets, including a tool that helped car mechanics safely remove and fit large tires onto oversized vehicles. “I am a huge DIY fan, and I get frustrated when a tool isn’t as good as it could be,” he said.
Then, in 2015, Snook received a call from former Hawaiian Airlines President and CEO Mark Dunkerley, who was looking for a new chief operating officer. “Dunkerley was good friends and fishing buddies with Tom Horton, the former CEO of American Airlines, and he was desperately trying to find someone, and Tom threw out my name. I didn’t know Mark before, but when we met, we got along well – not just because he was from England and his aviation career also brought him to the States. I told him I wasn’t interested in moving to Hawaiʻi full-time; I wanted to be sure I was there for the start of my son’s senior year and varsity soccer season. So, I agreed to help him out for a few months and commute from Texas.”
Snook worked in Honolulu Monday through Thursday and hopped on a plane every Thursday evening to be in Dallas in time for his son’s Friday night soccer games. But Hawaiian grew on him the more he worked with its people, leading him to move to Hawaiʻi full time once his son graduated high school.
“I really did fall in love with the company and people. It fit squarely with why I loved my first airline job: I was giving people a level of service that meant they left my care happier than when they arrived… I took great pride in that, and when I came to Hawaiian, I felt its employees also took pride in giving great service and sharing their hoʻokipa (hospitality) and aloha, too, almost like it was ingrained in those who call Hawaiʻi home. It’s not something you teach or train people – it’s in the heart, and that resonated with me,” he reflected.
Snook kept moving at his fast, devoted pace until 2018 when a cancer diagnosis forced an abrupt halt. “I thought I was invincible. I hated doctors and never went to see one. I played soccer until I got sick. I got bumped and bruised, but I always healed. But then I started to get pain in my bones, which went on for six months or so, and I began to struggle with catching my breath.
“Then I hurt my back badly while riding a horse and shook it off as pulling a muscle. But then, in the summer of 2018, I coughed hard, and my back went into the most painful situation I’ve ever had,” Snook recalled. “After seeing a few doctors, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma – a blood cancer. What I had been experiencing over the past several months were all side effects of cancer taking over my bone marrow. I learned that I only had less than 10% of functioning bone marrow; it wasn’t producing hemoglobin, and that’s why I was out of breath; it wasn’t repairing my bones; what I experienced in my back was a vertebra collapsing. I’ve since had a bone marrow transplant, and everyone at Hawaiian Airlines was incredibly supportive. I’ve been on oral chemotherapy, and I think I’ll be on that for the rest of my life – it allows me to live a largely normal life.”
Snook, now 55, calls that time in his life “a meeting with mortality.”
“I’ve learned to appreciate the moment,” he reflected. “Instead of cursing at a bad swing, I stop and look at what is around me when I'm out on a golf course. We live in this beautiful place, and we don’t see it a lot of the time. You have to stop and think about what this moment is about. I was living my life running, running toward retirement, but you don’t know if you’ll get the retirement, so enjoy the moment. That is very real when you’ve looked death in the eye.”
It's been three years since Snook returned to his full-time duties. Since then, he has helped steer Hawaiian through arguably the most challenging period of its 93-year history. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Snook and Hawaiian’s leadership team focused on ensuring the company’s long-term success and recovery. Snook is also fixated on navigating the company through industry-wide issues, such as strains on human resources, the future of air travel amid climate change, and a shaky economy – to name a few.
Despite his busy schedule, it’s not uncommon for Snook to casually stop colleagues in the hallway to ask how they are doing. “Where I find I am of value most is when I can know people and be known by people. I like to connect to the people I am working with directly,” he said.
When asked about his leadership philosophy, Snook believes decisiveness and a sense of calm are critical elements.
“I remember when I was working my first days as a lead agent at Manchester Airport, I went down to the gate and saw the operation was in chaos. We were running behind and going to take a delay – and taking a delay was a big deal. I was clearly freaking out a little bit and exhibiting signs of stress openly until one of the experienced lead agents whispered in my ear, ‘You’ve got to stay calm. People don’t want to see you panic. People want to see you in control.’ That singular piece of advice has stuck with me for over 20 years, and I have tried to be calm in any critical decision I’ve ever encountered.
“And people also want decisiveness,” he continued. “If I think about what I like about leaders I’ve had, I always know they’ll be thoughtful and deliberate no matter how critical and complex the issue is."
Snook also shared that a good balance between the head and the gut is helpful, though the most important thing, he believes, is to have fun. “It sounds cliché when I say that, but if we aren’t laughing or enjoying what we do, then what’s the point? Work is difficult and serious enough, and nobody wants to be where things are always hard. Humor is important in the workplace ….it is a very powerful tool during moments of crisis and tension,” he shared.
But on less eventful days – when Snook isn’t making difficult decisions or navigating complex problems – he learned to appreciate the moment of the operation and watch the people behind the smoothness of a well-run airline.
“We take immense pride in helping others, serving them, and leaving them better from our care. I believe dedication to service makes you a better person, and it is a wonderful attribute that Hawaiian Airlines possesses in spades,” Snook said.
“Other airlines would desperately love to have something like this, but you can’t train it! It comes from inside and from how you’ve seen your parents, neighbors and friends treat people. The people at Hawaiian Airlines truly care. That’s why I am confident that we will prevail, no matter the competition – the aloha at Hawaiian Airlines is real.”