Mokulele Promises Improvements
By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor
Mokulele Airlines executives say better service is on the way after months of what some residents describe as a nightmare flying on the island’s only air carrier. March brought particularly frustrating experiences with extensive delays and cancellations that the airline says were due to weather and mechanical issues, leaving passengers stranded.
Mokulele serves as a lifeline for the small community, especially when it comes to critical medical appointments and off-island work. But residents say they can no longer depend on Mokulele to get them there.
“Whether you’re coming here [to Oahu] for a Bruno Mars concert or you’re coming here for your chemotherapy, either one, you gotta be able to depend on us to leave pretty close to the time you made that ticket — that’s where we have to get to,” said Richard Schuman, executive vice president of Mokulele and owner of the former Makani Kai Air.
Keith Sisson, Mokulele chief of staff, said a new flight schedule, $10 million in additional aircraft and an app to help passengers track and manage their flights will all improve service.
Some delays have originated with the airline’s post-pandemic flight schedule, according to Sisson. Mokulele scaled back its operation to just a few flights a day during COVID. When demand picked back up, they layered flights on top of that schedule, which created a “highly inefficient” schedule last year, he said. For example, Sisson said sometimes six Mokulele aircraft would all land in Honolulu at the same time, causing delays.
On March 1, Mokulele rolled out a new schedule that adds more time allowance for each flight, more time in between each flight, and a break period of several hours in mid-day to allow for catchup on any morning delays so afternoon flight schedules won’t be affected.
As the new schedule rolled out and flights were rearranged, Sisson said they had to reach out to every passenger to rebook on a similar flight time or one that worked better for them.
However, many residents say they were not notified of cancelled flights and showed up at the airport only to be told their flight didn’t exist or had been changed.
“My son had to travel for doctor’s appointment,” said Molokai resident Kimberly Lani, explaining the flight was booked by her son’s medical insurance. “When we show up for the flight at 9 a.m., they say, ‘Oh sorry, your flight left at 8. And by the way, we canceled your return so you don’t have a flight.’ Ok, we waited two months for this doctor’s appointment for my child, very important, it has to be cancelled.”
Sisson said for flights booked by insurance for medical appointments, insurance companies often won’t give the airline the patient’s direct contact info. That means the airline has no way to contact travelers in the case of changes, and delay or change notifications instead go to the insurance carrier, which doesn’t always pass on the message to the customer.
“That was a major problem and no fault of the passenger traveling and we’ve tried to make this a better process,” Sisson said.
He didn’t have an estimate of what percentage of Molokai travel is booked by insurance.
“The schedule change that we did in March, you’re going to see the benefits of it in April and it’s going to be a drastically different experience than what you’ve seen in the last few months… we’ve really done a nice job on this reset and it’s just unfortunate that the situations in March did not allow for that to be seen,” said Sisson.
Problems in March
Though the new schedule was already implemented last month, Sisson said a series of unrelated issues in the month of March hampered the improvements.
“A lot of the issues that we’ve seen in the month of March, most of them were cancels due to the horrific weather,” Sisson explained. “Eight of the first 15 days of March, [there were] a lot of cancels, near gale force winds, very bad visibility where we had multiple flights that simply had to turn around and go back to Honolulu because they could not land on Molokai. It was a big mess, and when things like that happen, those passengers that are displaced have to go onto the next day schedule, and we have to adjust the next day schedule to get enough flights in to get everybody moved, so it causes even further disruption for people that were not necessarily affected directly affected by the weather.”
In addition to weather, airline representatives say a series of mechanical problems compounded delays caused by weather.
One of the company’s 28-seat Saab aircraft suffered damage from a malfunction of a piece of ground service equipment that may have resulted in engine damage. Sisson said that aircraft will be out of service as the engine is thoroughly inspected. During the same time, the other Saab was down for a scheduled, mandatory five-year inspection. That inspection is now complete and the aircraft is back on line this week.
Aside from the issues in March, Schuman said the airline’s cancellation rate is very low.
“We have an obnoxious percentage of [flight] completion,” said Schuman. “If we have 100 flights a day, we’re probably going to do 99 percent of them. It may run till midnight, but we have an obnoxious rate of completion.”
“In the case of Molokai,” he added, “we pretty much will get you home, even if it’s past midnight, we’re flying into Molokai getting people home.”
More Planes, New App
To bring greater reliability and provide more backup, Mokulele is bringing in about $10 million worth of additional planes to Hawaii.
In the next few months, three 2022 model P-2012 Tecnam Travelers are being relocated from Mokulele’s parent company, Southern Airways’ service in Guam, said Sisson. The twin-engine planes have nine seats and will provide reserve backup to the airline’s current nine-seat Cessna Grand Caravans.
Additionally, a third 28-seat Saab is coming to Hawaii, as backup for the other two.
“We know we have to get better on time and reliability,” said Schuman. “Getting more aircraft is going to help, because… the amount of aircraft we put on the line to service the Molokai people, we’re just using everything we humanly have. When we have a maintenance issue, it just piles up.”
Another improvement for Mokulele is the release of an app that Sisson calls a “gamer changer.”
The app will allow customers to track their incoming flight, alert them of any changes in departure time, and will allow them to change their flight without calling customer service – a current point of complaint for many residents. The app is rolling out within a few weeks, Sisson said, though some of the features won’t be available in the first iteration.
When questioned by the Dispatch whether those with insurance-booked flights would be able to utilize the app, Sisson said it is dependent on insurance policy.
“The technology is capable of allowing people whose insurance companies have booked their ticket to move between flights; however, it is up to the insurance companies to allow us to offer this service to their clients,” he said, via email.
Residents Left with No Options
Lani said she hasn’t traveled for leisure since 2019. A state employee on Molokai, she said she has only traveled for work or medical reasons, and out of five airline reservations in recent months, they were all canceled either by Mokulele or by her employer because “the constant changes of time on departure of arrival really impinged on our work that we needed to do off island on Maui.”
“My mom was just here in the hospital, and was medevaced last week,” said Lani. “I couldn’t get a flight out [to help her] — I had to basically wait and check for a week and I finally got a flight out a few days ago. That’s really bad, when we have emergencies.”
With flights so unreliable, many people have been spending extra money on accommodations to ensure they are at their destination on time.
“Now, for a lot of people, the trend is, ‘go a day early,’” said Lani. “So the burden is placed on us, we already have a burden of living here without things. But what are we going to do? I don’t have the luxury of going a day prior.”
For Lani, she said Mokulele’s improvements sound great, but don’t mean much to her yet.
“There’s really no faith in what they say at this point, just seeing is believing,” she said. “We make do with a lot of situations already, this is unacceptable.”
Molokai resident Arabella Ark experienced Mokulele during some of its worst performance last month.
“I had eye surgery, I had stitches that had to be addressed in a timely manner. So my flights were cancelled, and my flights were cancelled, and I’m trying to rebook my appointment. So finally, two weeks too late, I get a flight,” she said.
Her 7 a.m. flight for her 12:45 p.m. appointment in Honolulu didn’t leave until 2 p.m.
“Three times I had to call my doctor to see if I could get there, if she would stay,” Ark said. She booked a 7 p.m. flight to get home.
“All flights are cancelled. There were about 50 people waiting to come to Molokai and Lanai,” she continued. “The airline just shuts down, they turn off the lights, everybody leaves, there’s no transportation, no hotel, no food, nothing. And they say just rebook your flight.”
The following day, after rescheduling her return flight for 7 a.m. and paying for a hotel and change fees, she didn’t leave the Honolulu terminal until 3:30 p.m.
“Three people were in wheelchairs, sitting in the lounge, and one of the Molokai fellows says, ‘I’m diabetic and I thought I was going home yesterday, I didn’t bring enough medicine.’ He started trembling and shaking. I go out and I tell the counter people, we’ve got some medical problems here, this guy needs to get on a flight, but they couldn’t do much for him,” she said. “The guy sitting next to me had had a stroke and that’s why he was coming home, he had just gotten out of the hospital, there was another person who had had a heart attack. All of us were supposed to go out on a Wednesday night, we finally went out on a Thursday late afternoon.”
Ark is one of many residents who have reached out to state politicians for help and filed complaints with the Federal Aviation Administration. Ark said her concerns are no reflection on local employees and their efforts to provide the best customer service they can.
Help in Emergencies
Schuman said despite the reliability issues, the airline accommodates emergency situations on a “weekly basis” for those who reach out to him. Whether it’s a Lanai family trying to see their father before he passed away in the hospital in Honolulu, or a Molokai resident with a dog requiring urgent care off-island, Schuman said he and Sisson make every effort to help the community.
“I got a 6 a.m. call from Molokai General, lady was in labor, needed to get to Queen’s for a cesarean. Hawaii Life Flight wasn’t flying. I called Keith [Sisson], we got her on the next plane out,” said Schuman. “If there’s not an empty seat, we’ll ask someone to give up their seat and if they do, we’ll give them a free round trip ticket. So we’ll compensate a person to help another local person. That kind of scenario happens every single week.”
He said being able to help those in need is important to him.
“The family knows that we know we were able to do something special and out of the ordinary for them — we don’t believe very many airlines in the country would be able to do something like that,” said Schuman. “You can call seven days a week, day or night, and I’m going to answer my phone.”
Though some have suggested a competing airline flying into Molokai would improve service and lower fares, Sisson claimed the opposite is true.
“As long as we are getting 100 percent of the business, we can put great investment into the island of Molokai to make sure that the air service product that you’re going to have not just tomorrow, but three months from now, is going to be better than what you’ve ever had before,” he said. “Having another competing carrier there where we’re going to have to compete with each other for things like crew and mechanics… we’re going to have to really drive up the wages in order to be competitive in the marketplace and to stay in business.”
“We want there to be easy and affordable air travel,” added Sisson.