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Airlines Compete to Serve Kalaupapa

Kalaupapa is regarded as one of the most isolated communities in the country. With 2,000-foot cliffs separating the peninsula from topside Molokai and no outside road access, the only way to and from the settlement is by foot, mule or plane. As Makani Kai Airlines reaches the end of their two-year federal contract to provide Kalaupapa with affordable airfare, they—along with three other airlines—are bidding to offer subsidized service to the settlement’s residents and visitors beginning in January 2014.

The Essential Airline Service (EAS) is a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) program that provides small, rural communities access to major national and international airport hubs though a subsidized commuter airline system. According to the DOT, the service, supported under public law, serves small communities more than 175 miles away from major airports or geographically separated communities, such as Kalaupapa, that would not otherwise have access to air service.

“The economy the EAS has brought to the price of tickets has been essential to connect the aging patient population and growing support population with the outside world and to bring guests to this very significant historical and religious Hawaiian site,” said Department of Health Kalaupapa Administrator Mark Miller.

Last month, four airlines filed their applications with the DOT, which will analyze each company’s routes, frequency, aircraft type, subsidy rate, contract period, and community feedback and award the contract starting in 2014. This year’s applicants include Makani Kai, Mokulele Airlines, Boutique Air based in San Francisco, and SeaPort Air based in Portland, Oregon.

Makani Kai: Easy Travel
Makani Kai owners and staff met with settlement residents last month to express their gratitude and enthusiasm to continue serving the community.

“I want to thank you all for your support the last two years,” said Makani Kai owner Richard Schuman at the community meeting. “It’s amazing how fast the two years have gone by.”

Schuman proposed a two-year and four-year contract in his application to DOT. Both contracts include serving the area seven days a week, working with the community to plan 12 nonstop round trips between Honolulu and Kalaupapa and 18 nonstop round trips between Kalaupapa and the Ho`olehua Airport on topside Molokai each week. The subsidy for both contracts is estimated between $700,000 and $800,000 annually.

At the meeting in October, Schuman said Makani Kai would continue to be reliable and resident rates would remain low at $72.50 between Kalaupapa and Oahu and $42.50 between the Kalaupapa and Ho`olehua airports.

“What you’re paying today is what you should be seeing for the next two years,” he said. “We’ve been able to operate very efficiently and if you’re operating efficiently, you don’t need to raise rates just to make more money.”

Additionally, he said the community would continue to enjoy benefits including no TSA security screening, no bag fees, cancellation or rescheduling fees, and free overnight parking as well as shuttle services to and around the Honolulu  airport, downtown and Waikiki.

“Being part of the lifeline of a community and being able to service the community of Kaluapapa has been an honor,” said Schuman in his application. “For Makani Kai Air, the EAS contact means more than simply moving people to and from the peninsula: we are part and parcel of the community, a responsible and caring organization that prides itself on being reliable, on time and serving with heart.”

Mokulele: Encourages Visitors
Now under new management, Mokulele Airlines seeks to add Kalaupapa to its growing operation. The company’s goal, as stated in their application, is to provide Kalaupapa residents and worldwide visitors with daily flights to and from Honolulu and Kahului in a four-year contract.

“We feel that providing service to both Honolulu and Kahului will alleviate the needs to fly ‘topside’ to Ho`olehua, Molokai,” said Mokulele CEO Ron Hansen in his application. “However we have included six flights a week to ‘topside’ should the community and DOT want this to be part of the bid package.”

Mokulele proposed two round trip flights daily between Kalaupapa and Honolulu as well as Kalaupapa and Kahului with an everyday rate of $79, but pledges to work with tour groups, National Park Service workers and the community to develop a schedule that best works for them. They estimate an average subsidy between $200,000 and $300,000 annually.

“We would open up the world to this community,” said Mokulele Vice President Dave Barry. “On our system, you can book a ticket [online] to Molokai and Kalaupapa from anywhere in the world.”

Additionally Barry said Mokulele has EAS experience as they were selected to serve Waimea in July this year.

Barry made his first trip to Kalaupapa last week and said he plans to meet with residents within the next couple weeks to discuss their service plan with the community.

SeaPort: Low Rates
Portland based carrier SeaPort Air is new to Kalaupapa’s application pool but the company’s president, Rob McKinney, said he’s no stranger to serving the settlement.

“I ran both Pacific Wings and Mokulele [former Kalaupapa EAS-holder] from 2002 to 2007.  I served the residents of Kalaupapa from 2002 to 2005,” McKinney said in an email. “Kalaupapa will always be a very special place for me.”

According to McKinney, during his time serving the community, he petitioned the state DOT to add electrical outlets to the terminal and ramp area to make air service more accessible with wheelchair lifts.

Now under a new company, he proposed a four-year contract of 12 weekly nonstop roundtrips to Honolulu and 18 weekly to topside Molokai with a $952,000 subsidy.

“Like we are in the communities we serve on the mainland, we are responsive to community input for optimal schedule,” said McKinney. “We also offer lower fares than has been offered to Kalaupapa in some time.”

The airline’s rates vary based on time of purchase and travel flexibility, however, the lowest, non-refundable rates residents will see are $19 between Kalaupapa and topside and $39 between Kalaupapa and Oahu if they purchase their tickets two weeks before planned departure.

Boutique Air: Flexible Service
After keeping an eye on Kalaupapa and the Hawaiian market for some time, Boutique Air President Shawn Simpson said all the current bids have pros and cons but Boutique offers “superior frequencies, reliability, routing, and service.”

According to their two-year proposed contract, Boutique is requesting a $943,000 subsidy for “two round trip one­stop flights to Honolulu, two round trip one­stop flights to Kahului and four round trip non­stops to Kaunakakai [Ho`olehua] each  service  day.” Airline administrators plan to meet with the settlement for flight scheduling if selected.

“Since Kalaupapa will be where we start, we can be extremely flexible to meet the community’s needs,” said Simpson. “We feel this is an excellent opportunity to begin serving Hawaiians, starting with some of your most respected citizens.”

Projected rates range between $39 and $69 to the Ho`olehua Airport; $59 and $129 to Honolulu; and $59 and $129 to Kahului. Fares are based on passenger count, however, according to their application, they are willing to consider a flat rate if the community prefers.

Simpson said he will be speaking with settlement officials and plans to meet with residents this month.

“We would be happy to address any questions from anyone interested in Kalaupapa’s air service,” he said. “Getting to know the community and supporting it through great service and flexibility is what we hope to achieve. “

Community Views
According to the DOT, after they receive all airline applications, they seek community input to help determine who will service the area for the next EAS contract period.

“If you have the service and it’s what the community wants, the price is not as important,” said Schuman. “The government does not [award] it to the lowest bidder…so take that into consideration—the most important part is the community support.”

So far, 30 Kalaupapa residents have signed a letter written by Miller in support of Makani Kai’s continued service in the community.

“Makani Kai has provided superior service to the Kalaupapa Settlement for the past 2 years,” Miler wrote in the letter submitted to the DOT. “Knowledge of Kalaupapa and trust are critical considerations for the people of Kalaupapa. We have that with Makani Kai.”

The DOT is now requesting final public comments that will be reviewed and taken into consideration for the EAS new contact in effect January 2014. Comments should be addressed and emailed to EAS@dot.gov by the end of November.


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