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‘Ohana by Hawaiian to Suspend Service

Photo courtesy of ‘Ohana by Hawaiian.

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

‘Ohana by Hawaiian, one of the two passenger air carriers serving Molokai, announced last Friday it will temporarily stop service beginning Nov. 1 due to low travel demand from COVID-19. Flights between Honolulu, Molokai and Lanai will be affected.

‘Ohana’s 48-seat ATR-42 turboprop aircraft represent the only planes currently serving Molokai that accommodate passengers boarding in a wheelchair and those weighing more than 350 pounds. Along with concerns that its suspension of service will leave those who are wheelchair bound without travel options, ‘Ohana’s termination would also leave its Molokai employees, as well as local TSA agents, jobless.

“Hawaiian sought to preserve important air service to Molokai and Lanai,” the company stated in a press release Friday. “However, low travel demand caused by the pandemic and the state of Hawaii’s quarantine restrictions triggered a labor provision in Hawaiian’s pilot contract affecting the carrier’s ability to provide ‘Ohana by Hawaiian service.”

The company stated the provision is common in the U.S. airline industry and prevents Hawaiian from offering ‘Ohana by Hawaiian flights – which are operated by Empire Airlines as a third-party carrier – when interisland Boeing 717 and Airbus A321neo jet flights operated by Hawaiian’s pilots are severely reduced.

Residents wave as the inaugural ‘Ohana flight departed Molokai in 2014. The Molokai Dispatch file photo.

Hawaiian Airlines said it plans to resume ‘Ohana flights once interisland air travel recovers significantly, but added that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

“It is an honor to provide essential transportation for the people of Lanai, Molokai and West Maui, and more recently all-cargo service within our state,” said Peter Ingram, president and CEO at Hawaiian Airlines. “While we are disappointed at being unable to avoid the service suspension, this is a difficult situation for both Hawaiian and Empire Airlines as we navigate an incredibly challenging period, and we all remain committed to returning flights to communities that rely on ‘Ohana by Hawaiian.”

‘Ohana by Hawaiian began service in the islands in 2014, with flights to Molokai as a focal point. Service between HNL and Kapalua in West Maui was already suspended in March.

Local leaders and residents have expressed grave concerns about what the company’s decision means for the Molokai community.

“’Ohana by Hawaiian has been a lifeline for the residents of Molokai and Lanai since they began their operations six years ago,” said Rep. Lynn DeCoite in a statement Friday. “They are the only option for our residents that are in wheelchairs or those needing physical assistance to be able to travel off island, for most the travel is to Oahu for medical appointments. While I am grateful that they provided this service to our communities, this is another unfortunate casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

DeCoite said she is already trying to work with Hawaiian Airlines leadership to find ways to continue service.

“Due to COVID-19 and the inter-island quarantine restrictions, many of our community members on Molokai and Lanai have put off medical appointments,” she said. “Many have not been off island since March. Our kupuna have been checking the news each day to find out when Inter-island travel will resume so they can book appointments for medical, dental and vision care. Ensuring that when travel is allowed that there is a viable option for them is paramount.”

Mayor Michael Victorino also committed to working for alternatives.

“While we understand Hawaiian Airlines faces economic challenges with decreased travel statewide, we have serious concerns over how this will affect our islands of Molokai and Lanai,” he said Friday. “These communities have limited access to resources and rely on `Ohana by Hawaiian for everything from medical appointments to essential goods. We will be working to ensure there is necessary support and assistance for our Molokai and Lanai residents.”

Mokulele Airlines, which merged with Makani Kai Air earlier this year and will now be the sole passenger air service to and from Molokai, states in its policies that “non-ambulatory passengers will not be permitted to board the Cessna Caravan aircraft due to the nature of the aircraft and the absence of a flight attendant to offer any on-board assistance.”

Non-ambulatory passengers are considered those who are unable to move themselves or need the support of another person to walk or move. Passengers who use a wheelchair for convenience are not considered non-ambulatory by the airline.

Additionally, passengers whose body weight exceeds 350 pounds can’t ride Mokulele planes “due to structural limitations” of its aircraft, the company states.

Hawaiian says it is contacting guests affected by the service suspension to provide refunds. Cargo customers will be offered refunds or, depending on the shipment, the option to have their products transported between the islands with Hawaiian’s Boeing 717 and A321neo aircraft.

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