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Mokulele to Provide Wheelchair Access

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

When Makani Kai Air began flying into Kalaupapa in 2011, owner Richard Schuman identified the need for a simple, light and easy to operate wheelchair lift to assist patient passengers onto the airline’s small Cessna aircraft. It didn’t exist. So he designed and built one.

Now, with wheelchair accessible options dwindling for Molokai air passengers, the “Schuman lift” will be used by Mokulele Airlines on topside Molokai, Honolulu, Kahului and Lanai.

Mokulele’s policy previously stated it could not accommodate passengers needing wheelchairs due to logistical challenges with its small aircraft. But when ‘Ohana by Hawaiian made an announcement two weeks ago that the company will temporarily halt service starting Nov. 1 with their larger ATR planes, leaving residents with no wheelchair accessibility on flights, Mokulele leadership “spent the weekend figuring out what can we do to be more accessible,” said company spokesperson Keith Sisson.

“Last Friday, when the news about ‘Ohana taking a haitus hit the marketplace, it seemed like everyone’s primary concern was limited accessibility for passengers with limited mobility on Molokai,” said Sisson last week. “We think we have a very innovative plan that we think no one else in the country is using for those aircraft and we think the overwhelming majority of passengers with limited mobility will be able to continue to use Mokulele with these new additions to the procedures.”

‘Ohana didn’t say how long they plan to halt service due to severely reduced passengers during the COVID pandemic and travel restrictions, but in the meantime, Mokulele — which merged with Makani Kai Air earlier this year — will be Molokai residents’ only travel-by-air option.

“We recognize it’s a huge responsibility, it’s our time to shine and we’re going to take advantage of it,” said Sisson. “Richard Schuman is not going to allow us to disappoint you so we’re not — it’s that simple. We’re going to be ready for that.”

Following the merger, Schuman serves as Mokulele’s Executive Vice President of Hawaiian Operations and oversees operations in the state.

The new policy requires those needing a wheelchair and traveling on their own to be able to take a step unassisted from their wheelchair onto the lift, which raises passengers on a seat to the door of the plane. Then the passenger needs to take another step or two to sit down in the last row of the seats in the aircraft.

If the passenger isn’t able to make the transfer by themselves, they must have a travel assistant accompany them on the flight.

“They [the travel assistant] help you transition from the wheelchair to the seat and also are there for you in the event of an emergency to exit the aircraft,” said Sissen.

If you’re worried about having to pay for a second ticket for someone to help you board, don’t be. The new Mokulele policy allows the travel assistant to fly free of charge.
“We don’t want to charge somebody two seats when they wouldn’t have to do that on ‘Ohana,” said Sissen.

Schuman said he was stunned when Mokulele owner Stan Little said he wanted to offer the free assistant option.

“He’s committed to helping people in wheelchairs to that extent — it blew my mind,” said Schuman.

For passengers who can’t move at all, Schuman said their only option might be a medical emergency flight on a gurney.

As of Nov. 1, a lift will be available in Honolulu, Molokai and Lanai. Another lift will be added later in November in Kahului, Sissen said. The lifts are being specially built and paid for by Mokulele, and cost about $4500 each, said Schuman.

All wheelchair passengers must book tickets at least four hours in advance through the Mokulele Call Center at (808) 495-4188. Call Center fees will be waived for wheelchair/limited-mobility reservations.

Another concern with ‘Ohana’s departure expressed by Molokai residents is the ability for passengers exceeding 350 pounds — the weight limit for Mokulele — to fly. Sissen said unfortunately that remains the maximum weight of passengers permitted by regulation.

Schuman said the airline is operating at a fraction of the flights it used to. He said pre-COVID, Makani Kai was flying 15 to 17 round trips daily between Molokai and Honolulu — sometimes more— and Mokulele was doing about the same. Now, Mokulele is flying two flights a day and “they’re not even full,” Schuman said.

However, he stressed he wants to work with Molokai residents and they will adjust that frequency as needed. If larger groups need to fly together, he told them to contact the airline for special arrangements. He suggested Molokai residents planning a trip to book “as far ahead as you can.”

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