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Alaska-Hawaiian Merger Won’t Solve Molokai Flight Issues

Molokai residents who were hoping the proposed Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines merger could help the flight crisis on Molokai, will unfortunately be disappointed. Representatives from Alaska Airlines were clear that they will not be flying to Molokai, officially partnering with Mokulele or bringing in an additional Molokai airline.

“We knew this was going to be a little bit of an unusual visit…We knew we didn’t have a solution,” explained Joe Sprague, Alaska Airlines regional president of Hawaii, at a meeting with representatives from Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines, the U.S. Congress and Molokai community members on March 28.

Airline representatives sighted “significant airport limitations” of the Ho’olehua airport for their current decision.

“The length of the runway is not sufficient, the load bearing capacity of the taxiway and the parking area is below the weight of the airplanes that we operate, and there’s not an instrument approach to both ends of the runway that’s a precision, straight in approach that would allow airplanes to land in more inclement weather,” explained Sprague.

In addition to physical limitations on the types of aircraft that can land on Molokai, Sprague outlined economic concerns with bringing an additional airline to service Molokai.

“If someone comes in with a larger plane…now there’s a lot more seats than perhaps the total demand would warrant, then the economics just collapse,” said Sprague. “I wish we could drop a 737 into Molokai tomorrow, but that’s not possible.”

Instead of serving Molokai directly, Sprague and his associates are looking at “other ways we can be helpful.”

“We can’t fly here ourselves, but what are the things we can do as a partner, as a resource,” said Daniel Chun, Alaska Airlines regional vice president of Hawaii.

Alaska Airlines has experience flying to smaller, isolated communities in Alaska, and is hoping to use that experience to offer constructive feedback to Mokulele.

“What we have is an understanding of servicing small communities, [and we’re] willing to share that expertise,” said Sprague.

At the well-attended March 28 meeting, Molokai community stakeholders presented detailed feedback on recurring delays and cancellations, and adverse effects on institutions ranging from healthcare to police training.

One attendee had printed out the previous month’s Facebook flight grievances, and circulated three-inch thick copies to those in attendance, including U.S. Congresswoman Jill Tokuda.

Tokuda was instrumental in bringing the airline delegation to Molokai.

“The moment I found out Alaska was considering the purchase of Hawaiian, I told them they needed to come with me to Molokai and Lanai,” explained Tokuda. “Regardless of whether they fly to Molokai, I wanted them to understand the unique air transportation challenges our communities face and be a partner with us to identify and find solutions…There is a human cost that comes with not having access to reliable and affordable air transportation, and the people of Molokai have been left holding the bill for too long.”

Tokuda explained that her office is also looking into additional transportation options such as county acquisition of a ferry, as well as working on quickly pulling together an air transportation task force.

“My office and I are working with federal agencies and local stakeholders to determine ways we can address challenges with air transportation on Molokai, including through federal programs and legislation as appropriate,” said Tokuda.

And while no material solutions were presented at the meeting, Sprague was optimistic that guidance from Alaska Airlines to Mokulele could make a difference.

“If we get folks on the aviation side to better understand the impacts…I think there are some solutions,” said Sprague. “We can provide encouragement for an air service provider to engage better than they have.”


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