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‘Ohana by Hawaiian Halts Flights

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

‘Ohana by Hawaiian air service will indefinitely suspend flights to Molokai and Lanai on Jan. 14, the airline told employees in a letter from a company official last week. The move leaves Mokulele Airlines as the sole air carrier serving Molokai.

“Our low levels of inter-island flying, caused by depressed demand across our network due to travel restrictions, triggered a provision in our labor contracts that prevents us from offering this third-party passenger and all-cargo service,” wrote Executive Vice President and COO Jon Snook in the letter that employees received last Wednesday, Jan. 6.

In October, the airline announced it would suspend flights on Nov. 1 due to low ridership, but was later by the federal Dept. of Transportation that it was required to give 90-day notice of service disruption under the DOT’s Essential Air Service (EAS) requirements.

A “dormant” EAS provision covered flights to Molokai and Lanai, designated as rural, underserved communities under the federal EAS regulations, according to DOT officials. The EAS designation wasn’t being evoked for years because multiple airlines were providing commercial air service to Molokai and Lanai. But with ‘Ohana’s announcement last fall raising concerns about medical travel, the EAS regulations came back into play, said officials.

Now, ‘Ohana has fulfilled that 90-day notice requirement.

Snook said in his letter the DOT “ruled that Essential Air Service to these islands will be sufficiently maintained by Mokulele Airlines, permitting us to suspend our LNY and MKK operations as anticipated.”

DOT officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Molokai’s EAS status and requirements.

“For every one of us, it has been an honor and privilege to serve these communities—and the travel needs of visitors and kama‘aina alike—since 2014,” wrote Snook. “It is unclear when demand will recover sufficiently to allow us to return to Molokai, Lanai, or Kapalua in West Maui, or to reinstate all-cargo Neighbor Island service. I want to thank everyone who worked in good faith to navigate this unexpected and difficult challenge and send a special mahalo to the employees who have supported the operation to this point.”

Empire Airlines, which operates ‘Ohana’s flights, did not return requests for comment on how many Molokai employees will be left without jobs.

For local TSA agents, the future is unclear, according to an employee. Passage through the Molokai TSA checkpoint is currently only required for ‘Ohana flights, and the nine Molokai TSA agents are awaiting word from management on what comes next, as of Friday, according to the employee. TSA officials could not be reached for comment.

‘Ohana’s departure leaves concerns about Molokai residents’ access to wheelchair-accessible flights and options for anyone weighing more than 350 pounds, which is the maximum passenger weight Mokuele aircraft are permitted to accommodate.

Following ‘Ohana’s first suspension announcement last October, Mokulele officials took steps to install specially designed wheelchair lifts for passengers with limited mobility.

Mokulele’s 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, according to Richard Schuman, Mokulele’s Executive Vice President of Hawaiian Operations.

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

But many remain frustrated with ‘Ohana’s announcement.

“With Molokai’s passenger counts exceeding 80 to 90 percent, and after Hawaiian Air announced just yesterday [Jan. 6] that they would be taking advantage of the $900 billion federal stimulus package to bring people off furlough, it’s hard to believe that COVID has impacted their operations to the point of necessitating a suspension,” Maui County Council Vice-Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez told The Maui News last week. “I do not accept Hawaiian Airlines’ decision to suspend service to Molokai and Lanai indefinitely, and neither should our community.”

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