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‘Ohana to Continue Service, Mokulele in Financial Hardship

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

After announcing they would temporarily stop service on Nov. 1, ‘Ohana by Hawaiian will now continue flying “through at least January 2021,” the airline said in a statement last week.

A “dormant” Essential Air Service (EAS) provision covers flights to Molokai and Lanai, requiring a 90-day notice for disruption of service, according to the Dept. of Transportation. Ross Higashi, deputy director of the airports division, said in a state Senate Transportation Committee virtual meeting last week that 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 recent announcement raising concerns about medical travel, the EAS regulations came back into play.

Higashi said in the near future, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation will be looking for a carrier to offer service, with or without a subsidy, through a federal request for proposals similar to Kalaupapa’s EAS process.

Hawaiian Airlines previously stated that pandemic-induced low travel demand had triggered a provision in Hawaiian’s pilot contract restricting the carrier’s ability to provide ‘Ohana by Hawaiian service.

“Despite unprecedented challenges, Hawaiian has indicated that its goal has always been to avoid a service interruption, and the company will comply with the EAS requirements to continue to serve Molokai and Lanai as it continues exploring long-term solutions to preserve critical connectivity for both islands,” said Hawaiian Airilnes spokesperson Alex Da Silva.

Rep. Lynn DeCoite, Sen. Kalani English and Mayor Michael Victorino all expressed gratitude for the continued service.

“It is my hope that with the re-opening of inter-island and transpacific travel that come January we will have reached the point that this cut in service is no longer warranted,” said DeCoite. “We have seen the countless ways this pandemic has affected us all. This announcement gives us some relief on our road to economic recovery and assurance that for the next few months, those that are most vulnerable in our communities will be able to get to their necessary medical appointments as well as other essential and non-essential travel.”

“Our people are already struggling with COVID-19 pandemic impacts, so this is welcome news for our people, especially for those who have few other options for transporting cargo or traveling off island,” said Victorino. “‘Ohana by Hawaiian has been the only airline option for people who are in wheelchairs or those needing physical assistance to be able to travel off-island.”

Meanwhile, upon learning that ‘Ohana planned to discontinue service, Mokulele Airlines purchased specialized wheelchair lifts to accommodate limited mobility passengers and help fill the gap.

Now, Mokulele has said it is facing financial losses from limited travel due to COVID-19, and requested assistance from the state during last week’s Senate Transportation Committee virtual meeting.

Keith Sisson, Mokulele Airlines chief of staff, told committee members the operation is losing $350,000 per month and called out the county and state’s “confusing” travel regulations as partly to blame for the low travel numbers among its majority-local passengers.

“We think we’ve done everything we can do to make this service viable,” said Sisson. “We don’t want it to go away on our watch.”

He said financial support from Mokulele’s parent company, Southern Airways, has allowed the airline to continue Hawaii service, but that can’t continue longterm.

“But no business, no matter how critical the service is, can be expected to withstand losses for the community good,” Sisson said. “We must reach some level of sustainability.”

Sissan suggested changing interisland travel policies, a temporary state subsidy or state credits to cover monthly airport fees as possible solutions.

Sen. English shot down the idea of modifying travel regulations, while explaining that with Legislature out of session, any subsidies would be up to the governor. Higashi said airport fee credits wouldn’t be possible, with the DOT also facing financial struggles.

English thanked Mokulele for its commitment and suggested continuing to look at solutions while recognizing the essential nature of air service to Hawaii’s rural communities.

Sissan said changes are not imminent, but wanted to “sound the bell well in advance” to begin the discussion of long-term viability.

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