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Airlines Vie for Kalaupapa Service

The competition is becoming fierce between two airlines for the opportunity to serve the Kalaupapa community under a federal contract. Makani Kai and Mokulele airlines are two of the four companies that applied for subsidies to provide regular flights into the small, isolated settlement. In a show of hands last week, 77 out of 78 Kalaupapa residents attending presentations by both airlines voted in strong support of Makani Kai, which has been serving the peninsula for the past two years.

Community members say they appreciate the personalized service that Makani Kai and its owner Richard Schuman provides.

“More than once Richard Schuman always tells me, ‘if anything goes wrong in Kalaupapa, you call me and I will come there myself and pick up the people.’ That’s the kind of person he is,” said patient resident Gloria Marks at a community meeting at Kalaupapa’s McVeigh Hall last Tuesday.

With Makani Kai’s two year Essential Air Service (EAS) contract expiring this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) opened up the bidding process. The federal EAS program provides rural and geologically isolated communities with subsidized air transportation to major national and international airport hubs.

Rising Tensions

Several patient residents, including Marks, questioned why Mokulele is just now applying for the EAS when it did not express interest two years ago.

“Kalaupapa is another opportunity for us to expand… this is like any other city for us in regards that we can expand within your city,” said Roxanne Onuma, Mokulele Director of Customer Care. “On every island we see the different types of marketing opportunities and this EAS opportunity came up. We were asked to participate in the program and so we did…we were invited to bid for this city.”

Residents corrected Onuma for referring to Kalaupapa as a city instead of a settlement. Onuma said in 2011, Mokulele was switching ownership and was not in a position to serve an additional route.

Marks said she’s glad the community finally had an opportunity to express their feelings about Mokulele regarding this tumultuous decision. While Mokulele representatives visited the settlement last year, this was the first time they met with residents to share the airline’s proposals.

Onuma struggled to answer questions about Mokulele policy details such as fees, TSA screening requirements, and flight schedules.

“Frankly, to me it’s not even a debate; Mokulele cannot service Kalaupapa the way we can, period. It’s impossible,” Schuman said.

The community’s wishes were clear.

“The pono thing to do down here is whatever the kupuna want. Our kupuna are sharing that they’re satisfied with the [Makani Kai] service…and that’s what they should get,” said Shannon Crivello, a Kalaupapa Department of Health employee. “I think to be pono [Mokulele] should just pull out.” The crowd broke into applause and cheers.

Understanding the History

Makani Kai began servicing Kalaupapa under a two-year EAS contract in January 2012 and has applied for renewal. In October 2013, three additional airlines filed their applications with the DOT to operate under the EAS to serve the settlement’s residents, patients, and visitors.

EAS applicants for Kalaupapa included Makani Kai Air, Mokulele Flight Service, Boutique Air based in San Francisco, and SeaPort Air based in Portland, Oregon. The DOT is analyzing each company’s proposed routes, frequency, aircraft type, subsidy rate, contract period, and community feedback to determine which airline will be awarded the subsidy contract to service Kalaupapa beginning June 1, 2014, according to a DOT spokesperson.

“[The community’s] support of Makani Kai has been tremendous. We have 99 percent support. You don’t go anywhere and see that,” Schuman said. “Providing services to this community has been very important to my company and my people, so I want to thank [Kalaupapa] for all the support you have provided in the past and currently.”

Before Makani Kai began serving Kalaupapa, Pacific Wings was the only airline providing service under the EAS contract from August 2002 until March 2007. Pacific Wings declined to reapply for the contract renewal the following year, and instead provided service to Kalaupapa without government aid, which allowed the airline to set its own flight schedule and prices. According to the DOT, Airports Division, a one-way ticket from Honolulu or topside Molokai to Kalaupapa averaged more than $500. The high costs, inconsistencies in flight schedule, and unexpected cancellations caused Kalaupapa residents distress. Makani Kai stepped in to provide low fares and flexibility for residents.

“I’m not saying Mokulele is not good but…“[Makani Kai] is doing a good job, a very good job,” Boogie Kahilihiwa, a patient resident of Kalaupapa. “Our hearts are for Richard [Schuman].”

Makani Kai: Local Favorite

Schuman proposed two-year and four-year contract options in his application bid to the DOT for the subsidy to serve Kalaupapa seven days a week. He plans to fly 12 nonstop round trip flights between Honolulu and Kalaupapa, and 18 trips between Kalaupapa and Ho`olehua on topside Molokai each week. The subsidy for both contracts is estimated between $700,000 and $800,000 annually. Additionally, he said the community would continue to enjoy benefits including no TSA security screening, no bag fees, no cancellation or rescheduling fees, no fee for pets, and free overnight parking as well as shuttle services to and around the Honolulu airport, downtown area, and Waikiki.

At the town meeting in October 2013, Schuman said resident rates would remain low at $72.50 between Kalaupapa and Oahu and $42.50 between the Kalaupapa and Ho`olehua.

Support for the airline has remained strong in Kalaupapa even after an accident on Dec. 11, 2013, when a Makani Kai flight departing Kalaupapa experienced engine failure and landed in the ocean shortly after take-off. All eight passengers evacuated the aircraft safely, though Department of Health Director Loretta Fuddy died in the water shortly afterward. Despite the tragedy, the pilot, Clyde Kawasaki, is referred to as a local legend by community members.

“My planes aren’t brand new but they work pretty well and my pilots have demonstrated that they work pretty well too,” Schuman joked as he nodded in the direction of Kawasaki, while attendees followed suit with applause for the pilot. “…It’s all a huge team effort….I want to do a really good job servicing Kalaupapa and topside. My whole focus is on Molokai.”

Mokulele: The Newcomer

Now that Mokulele is under new ownership with Ron Hansen and Arizona’s TransPac Aviation Holdings, the company is now seeking to add Kalaupapa to its expanding operation that has been in steady business for over 40 years. The company currently serves eight airports throughout the state and has 120 flights each day.

“I know you folks are wondering what we’re doing here. If you look at the whole picture, Kalaupapa is not about money making. It’s all about service. That’s what Mokulele is trying to offer you folks,” said Mike Shizuma, a Molokai resident and supporter of Mokulele. “The decision is really up to you folks, but just so you know on the backburner, there is another company that is willing to do the same thing and maybe go a little bit further. I know it’s hard to let go…but there are options out there.”

If awarded the EAS subsidy, Mokulele proposed two round trip flights daily between Kalaupapa and Honolulu, as well as Kalaupapa and Kahului for a rate of $79 on their 10 new Cessna Grand Caravans. They estimate an average subsidy between $200,000 and $300,000. The company’s goal, as stated in their proposal application, is to provide Kalaupapa residents and worldwide visitors with daily flights in a four-year contract.

“We can afford you high class experience, knowledge, and wisdom in the field of airline,” said Onuma. “We appreciate this time to be with you and establish a relationship. We are so excited because this is a moment in our history where we have grown so tall and so wide and we want to touch your lives and this community by offering our services.”

Final Decision

The DOT seeks community input in making its decision on which airline will service the Kalaupapa settlement for the next EAS contract period. According to DOT spokesperson Caitlin Harvey, the DOT will determine which airline will be awarded the subsidy prior to May 31.

To date, at least 30 residents have signed a letter in support of Makani Kai Air’s continued service in the community, while Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa wrote in support of Mokulele.

Testimonies and comments are posted on Kalaupapa’s complete EAS docket at regulations.gov, which can be accessed by entering DOT-OST-2000-6773 in the search area. The final decision will be published to the docket.


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