Mokulele Selected to Serve Kalaupapa
Mokulele Airlines has been selected to fly into Kalaupapa under the federal Essential Air Service program without subsidized funding, despite concerns from the community. The airline has not yet finalized its flight schedule or pricing for its service to the isolated settlement, which will begin June 1.
The federal Department of Transportation (DOT) announced their decision on March 16, and Mokulele representatives met with Kalaupapa residents the following week to discuss their needs.
“I would say there’s a guarded optimism that Mokulele will serve the community and meet our needs, but there’re still concerns,” said Department of Health Kalaupapa Adminstrator Kenneth Seamon. “[Residents] have been very pleased with the service Makani Kai has provided and to some extent open to what Mokulele has to offer.”
Makani Kai has been serving Kalaupapa under the EAS since 2011, with a subsidy ranging from $690,000 to $751,000 per year. Makani Kai applied to continue providing that service — with outspoken support from Kalaupapa residents — but Mokulele’s proposal to fly subsidy-free won the DOT’s blessing. While community feedback is taken into consideration when making the decision on an EAS carrier, the DOT typically selects the subsidy-free option when it’s proposed, according to the department’s March 16 decision.
“…The Kalaupapa community has unique needs, and the Department encourages Mokulele to work closely with the residents of Kalaupapa and the users of the service,” the decision stated. “The Department encourages the community to remain in contact with the Department should any material changes arise in Mokulele’s service.”
Seamon said since the DOT decision, Mokulele has been working to address community needs.
“They are expressing a commitment to community and patients to try to meet all of our flight needs at a reasonable cost, even addressing things like animal transportation and luggage,” he said. “In our current contract, Makani Kai has committed to free transportation for luggage, but Mokulele has committed to try to get at least a couple bags.”
Yet with flight pricing still in the air, Kalaupapa residents’ concerns remain.
“By refusing the subsidy, an air carrier is free to manage price regulation according to its business needs,” stated a petition signed by nearly 100 Kalaupapa residents and staff of both the National Park Service and the Department of Health that was submitted to the DOT during the selection process. “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.”
Mokulele President Rob McKinney has said his airline will keep prices affordable.
“We know there’s apprehension whenever there’s change like this, but we are committed to making sure we take good care of that community,” McKinney told The Maui News last week. He added, “what we have committed to is the remaining patients will never pay more than $39 one way for the rest of their lives so long as Mokulele serves there.”
At the community meeting, Mokulele representatives told National Park Service and DOH employees that their rates would remain under $95 one way between Kalaupapa and Honolulu.
In their initial EAS application, Mokulele’s proposed flight schedule and routes caused concern, but Seamon said Mokulele has said that was just a “placeholder” until they find out more about residents’ needs and develop a final schedule.
“They are in contact with us pretty often now by email to try to figure out concerns and answer questions,” Seamon said of Mokuele.
He added that Senator Mazie Hirono has been very involved in the EAS process, advocating for the community. She has vowed to keep a watchful eye on Kalaupapa’s air service moving forward.
“Congress created the Essential Air Service Program to serve communities like Kalaupapa,” she said in a statement. “The U.S. Department of Transportation must uphold its commitments to the Kalaupapa community, and I will hold USDOT accountable to make sure air service to Kalaupapa meets the needs of the community.”
Makani Kai is still free to fly into Kalaupapa, and company spokesperson P.J. O’Reilley said they are waiting to see what Mokulele’s schedule and rates will be before making a decision.
Seamon emphasized “the community’s appreciation for what Richard [Schuman, Makani Kai president] and Makani Kai has done for the community.”
“I think there are some people that would prefer to continue to fly with Makani Kai because of their commitment,” he added.