Two airlines compete for Waimea-Kohala Airport Essential Air Service contract

  • Richard Schuman, owner of Makani Kai Air, speaks during the Waimea Community Association’s March meeting on Thursday. LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY
    Richard Schuman, owner of Makani Kai Air, speaks during the Waimea Community Association’s March meeting on Thursday. LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY

WAIMEA — Mokulele Air and Makani Kai Air are two contenders for a new Essential Air Service (EAS) contract that will cover all commercial flights in and out of Waimea-Kohala Airport beginning later this year. Mokulele Air services the airport currently since winning the contract in 2013.

Makani Kai Air, a part of Schuman Aviation Company Ltd., began daily interisland service between Molokai and Honolulu in 2009, and expanded to five daily round-trip flights in 2013. Currently they have between 11-15 round-trip flights along the route daily, and six flights from Kahului, Maui to Molokai daily.

Bids for Waimea-Kohala Airport are sought every four years. Currently, Mokulele manages two inbound and two outbound flights daily on Cessna Grand Caravan single-engined turboprop planes there.

“About four years ago we almost lost the EAS,” said Patti Cook, Waimea Community Association’s president. “We worked hard to convince the federal government that we needed this service for passengers and urgent freight for our rural communities.”

Waimea-Kohala Airport is a state owned, public use airport. The EAS process is federally subsidized but relies on community input. The State Department of Transportation (DOT) and the County also provide input.

“I think it’s the right thing to keep the playing field even by hearing proposals put forth by both carriers,” said Chauncey Wong Yuen, Hawaii district manager for Hawaii’s DOT. “It’s great to have a choice through competition and to see carriers recognizing business potential at Waimea.”

Makani Kai’s proposal will include a schedule of flights between Waimea and Kahului using Cessna Caravans, the same airplanes used by Mokulele. Both airlines offer reservations online or by phone.

Residents currently flying from Waimea to Honolulu on Mokulele have a total travel time of more than four hours, with stops in Kahului, Maui and Molokai. Makani Kai said that if selected, they would provide direct flights to and from Waimea to Honolulu on a twin-turboprop Beechcraft King Air 200. The model is twice as fast as the Caravan, and reduces the total flight time to around 45 minutes.

“I only focus on local people, and hone in on what their needs are,” said Richard Schuman, who owns Makani Kai Air and spoke at Waimea Community Association’s March meeting on Thursday night. “At Honolulu International Airport (HNL) we take our passengers by shuttle to their connecting flights. From a local perspective, it’s all word of mouth. I do no advertising. We haven’t changed our rates in three years. I’m not greedy.”

Based at HNL, Makani Kai Air offers air charter, helicopter tours, aircraft management, aircraft maintenance and aircraft sales. They have a $50 flat rate for flights between Molokai and Honolulu or Kahului booked online. The same rate applies for every seat on every flight, every day, and the airline does not raise fares on weekends or holidays or at busy times of day, according to Schuman. A $15 fee is added per bag.

If selected, he plans to offer a flat rate structure for Makani Air flights from Waimea to Kahului and Honolulu, although it would be more than $50 since it is twice the distance.

Mokulele Air President Rob McKinney also presented at the WCA meeting.

“It’s been an honor and privilege to be Waimea’s hometown airline over the past four years,” he said. “As the second largest airline in the state, we provide nearly 250 good paying jobs here in Hawaii. We’ve kept our headquarters here on the Big Island. Over the past year, we flew more than 8,300 people throughout the islands with around 93.4 percent were on time. We always have two pilots on each flight.”

Mokulele expanded their service to the mainland last March after winning a bid for flights between Imperial/El Centro and Los Angeles International Airport. This year, they installed a state-of-the-art pilot training facility on Maui, McKinney said. The full-motion simulator provides a variety of scenarios with fires, engines and instruments out to prepare pilots in case of an emergency.

“We are also proud that Mokulele will be the first airline in our class to have an FAA-approved aviation safety action program,” McKinney said. “We’re one of the few in our class anywhere in the whole country. This is a partnership with the FAA to make sure there is constant vigilance and improvement on our safety processes and programs.”

When checked on their website, Mokulele’s interisland rates range from $87-$205 one way, fluctuating different times of the day and days of the week. Checked bag fees begin at $20 for first bag, $25 for second bag and $35 for third bag. However, a dog can fly free in the cabin with the passenger when up to 320 pounds combined.

Should Waimea-Kohala Airport be fogged or rained in, both airlines agreed they would provide shuttle service from Kona to Waimea.

“We want to serve the community of Waimea,” Schuman said. “We believe we can establish more convenience connections, and save passengers money.”

DOT is currently taking comments from the public to learn their preferences on the numbers of flights per week, flight destinations and cost. Specifically, they want to know if community members are happy with the current air carrier, Mokulele, or if they would consider or support another air carrier.

After receiving the communities’ views, the DOT considers five factors when making a carrier selection: demonstrated reliability of the applicant in scheduled air service; contractual and marking arrangements made with a large carrier to ensure service beyond the hub airport; interline agreements made with larger carriers for passengers and cargo at hub airports; preferences of users and elected officials; and the air carrier’s plan to market their service to the community.

Interested residents can contact the DOT with comments or suggestions at scott.faulk@dot.gov. The deadline is March 23.

A call to state, county and federal officials may also be effective. The complete list can be found at http://lrbhawaii.org/reports/rpts/lrb/dir/dir.pdf.

The current EAS contract expires in October. The DOT will issue their decision in September.

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