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Bids For Kalaupapa’s Air Service

For residents of Kalaupapa, their airline is their lifeline. It’s the sole means of travel for patient residents — and for staff and visitors, landing at the isolated peninsula’s tiny airport is the only way to avoid the arduous three-mile hike up and down the pali trail. Federal funding supports the regularly-scheduled affordable flights currently provided by Makani Kai Air but the Essential Air Service (EAS) subsidy contract expires in May, and residents are concerned for the future.

Makani Kai has been serving Kalaupapa under the EAS subsidy with the support of the community since 2011. Now, two other airlines have submitted applications for Kalaupapa’s EAS contract awarded by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT), and one of them, Mokulele Airlines, has submitted a proposal to fly into Kalaupapa without a subsidy.

“By refusing the subsidy, an air carrier is free to manage price regulation according to its business needs,” stated a petition signed by 86 Kalaupapa residents and staff of both the National Park Service and the Department of Health. “Without any control, Mokulele Airlines may charge any price they feel necessary. This would allow Mokulele Airlines to charge the residents of Kalaupapa an exorbitant amount for flights in and out of Kalaupapa.”

The last time an airline served the community without federal funding, airfares skyrocketed. In 2011, Pacific Wings charged $500 for a round trip flight between Honolulu and Kalaupapa and close to that for the 10-minute flight between the peninsula and topside Molokai. Residents are concerned history will repeat itself if Mokulele is awarded the contract.

Makani Kai would continue the 12 nonstop round trip flights each week between Kalaupapa and Honolulu, and 18 round trips between Kaluapapa and topside Molokai, with flights seven days a week. For their last contract, they requested a subsidy ranging from $690,000 to $751,000 per year, but are now asking for $690,000 each year for the four-year contract. Their one-way airfare will continue to be about $138 between Honolulu to Kalaupapa, and $72 between Kalaupapa and Ho`olehua; Kalaupapa residents pay a little more than half of each fare.

Mokulele is proposing zero subsidy service, and would offer one round trip per day, six days a week. Each flight between Kalaupapa and Honolulu would stop on topside Molokai, which has raised concerns among settlement residents. Mokulele also did not provide airfare pricing in their application.

Mokulele President Rob McKinney responded to community airfare concerns in a letter to the DOT.

“The one consistent theme is that there is a fear that Mokulele will raise fares to a rate that is not affordable by residents or the government employees that rely on air service for their day to day existence,” he wrote. “We are cognizant that a previous carrier engaged in this reprehensible behavior, and so the apprehensions expressed are founded on past experience… Mokulele’s core values of aloha, integrity and ohana make a choice to do harm to a community we serve, unthinkable.”

A third airline, Alaska-based Servant Air, is also applying to serve Kalaupapa under the EAS. President and CEO Eoghan Joyce said in the company’s application that they would continue the same schedule and fares as currently offered to Kalaupapa, and are asking for a subsidy of $2.9 million per year.

“We do not take this decision to offer service to Kalaupapa lightly, or as just another potential piece of business for our company,” Joyce wrote. “As Alaskans, we too share a deep respect for our community, culture and environment.”

Kalaupapa residents have been outspoken in their support of Makani Kai’s continued service to the settlement. The petition stated that Makani Kai allows coolers and boxes of food to be flown for free to the settlement, while Mokulele had stated they would charge for that service. The petition also stated that Makani Kai staff are “sympathetic and helpful” in assisting many of the wheelchair-bound patient residents and allowing staff or family on the tarmac.

“In numerous instances, the present EAS holder has diverted a flight to stop in Kalaupapa in order to more quickly facilitate the transportation of the person to the next level of care,” said Erika Stein Espaniola, Kalaupapa National Historical Park Superintendent. “The NPS greatly appreciates such adaptive serviceability and would seek to have the same relationship with the next EAS holder.”

Makani Kai President Richard Schuman said his company caters to the needs of Kalaupapa residents.

“Because our pilots and aircraft are dedicated specifically for the Kalaupapa residents, holding aircraft for residents, adding additional flights on the fly, being able to accommodate the residents for weather delays is easy for my company,” wrote Schuman in his EAS application. “The pilot makes the decision knowing full well these residents need to be somewhere to do something. Our job is to make that happen safely, no matter what.”

Residents also stated concerns about Mokulele’s proposed flight schedule.

“The schedule proposed by Mokulele Airlines would leave nearly 75 percent of the workers without transportation at the beginning and ending of their work week,” stated the petition, adding that Mokulele’s route with stopovers in topside Molokai would be troublesome for patients needed to fly directly to Honolulu for medical appointments.

In selecting the EAS carrier, the DOT considers factors like reliability and cost of service, as well as the community’s preferences. The DOT has given no date for its decision, but will announce the contract winner sometime before Makani Kai’s contract expires in May.


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