Battle of the Airlines
It’s a battle of the airlines to the tiny settlement of Kalaupapa, with two companies vying for the ridership of residents. In a drama that will play out in the coming weeks, both Makani Kai Air and Mokulele Airlines are now flying into the peninsula.
In March, Mokulele Airlines was selected to service the settlement under the federal Essential Air Service (EAS) program beginning June 1, but without the federal subsidy that normally offsets the cost of flying into remote locations that otherwise might not get air service. Makani Kai has been serving Kalaupapa under the EAS since 2011, also applied to renew its EAS contract, requesting about $700,000 annually. When Mokulele applied with the subsidy, it raised concerns from the Kalaupapa community, and many residents expressed fear that airfare rates would skyrocket. They were outspoken in their support of Makani Kai’s continued service but the Department of Transportation awarded the bid to Mokulele at the end of March.
Now, Makani Kai President Richard Schuman said his airline will continue to serve Kalaupapa, where he said his company got its start. Schuman said he doesn’t understand why Mokulele would want to fly without a subsidy, calling the route economically unsustainable. But that hasn’t stopped him from now flying there without a subsidy as well.
“Is it crazy? Yeah it is,” said Schuman. “The actual ridership [for Kalaupapa routes] is somewhere between 39 percent to 47 percent. That includes patients, workers, visitors — anybody that gets on this plane to go Kalaupapa or come back. What this means in a business sense is you have less than half your plane full — month after month, year after year. You can’t economically sustain that.”
But for Schuman, it isn’t all about the numbers, and said he’s going to extend Makani Kai’s customary rate of $50 per flight to Kalaupapa as well. That means his flights will be cheaper than Mokulele’s, which run between $60 and $95 between Honolulu and Kalaupapa. The airlines will be operating more or less the same schedule in and out of the settlement.
“Servicing the people of Kalauapapa became kind of a passion and I haven’t changed my price in six years [before now],” said Schuman. “We don’t charge for bags, we don’t charge for change fees, we don’t charge for dogs, we don’t charge for anything extra, and it’s been that way because I’m grateful they were the people that helped me start to be where I am today.”
Schuman said because Mokulele isn’t receiving a subsidy, they can pull out of the EAS at any time. If that happens, the Department of Transportation would put the route up for bid again, and the process would start from scratch.
Mokulele President Rob McKinney didn’t respond for comment but previously vowed to “take good care” of the Kalaupapa community and keep prices affordable.
“Time will tell, we’ll see what happens,” said Department of Health Kalaupapa Administrator Kenneth Seamon. “Personally, we’ve all really appreciated Makani Kai’s service over the last few years while they part of that contract.”
Meanwhile, Makani Kai leadership said they’re hoping residents will continue to show their loyalty.
“It’s obvious… that the community will not support two airlines and we’re counting on the Kalauapapa community to support us an airline against the other guys because we know what’s going to happen,” said Makani Kai’s P.J. O`Reilley. “If two people go head to head, one’s going to have to fall out, and we hope it’s not us, because we’d like to continue the great service.”