WAIMEA — Although the federally funded Essential Air Service (EAS) contract with Mokulele Airlines expired Tuesday, business continued as usual last week at Waimea-Kohala Airport.
“I’ve flown to Maui four times a year or more from this airport with a lot of my fellow North Kohala residents,” Lori Namaness said. “It’s really important to have this option because otherwise we probably wouldn’t make some of the trips.”
Julia Lee, a Waimea resident, flies out of the local airport three times a year.
“It’s a great option to go see my dad and better than driving to Kona,” she said.
Waimea-Kohala Airport is one of only two public use facilities in the nation that utilizes the EAS subsidy for financial assistance in underserved areas, according to District 9 Councilman Tim Richards. The other airport is in Pennsylvania.
State Rep. Cindy Evans and Sen. Lorraine Inouye — chair of the state’s Senate Transportation and Energy Committee — have worked hand in hand with Hawaii County and County Council members to find a way to continue the subsidy.
“I was notified in mid-November that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), EAS Division, required local cost share to continue the subsidy for Mokulele Airlines,” Rep Evans said. “Our State DOT tried to pay for the local cost share with airport revenue. After many months of discussion and involvement by legal counsel it was determined airport revenues did not qualify as local cost share.”
After further conversations with the EAS Division in Washington, D.C., she confirmed requirements imposed by Congress and the interpretation by the DOT, and contacted Councilman Richards and Mayor Harry Kim.
“It was a scramble for us to reach an agreement, and we were challenged with communication through the holiday season,” Rep. Evans said, “but we understood the importance of keeping the airline and working together on the future of interisland air service at Waimea-Kohala Airport.”
The local cost share was settled for 5 percent, with the federal government to pay 95 percent. On Jan. 12 the County Council and Mayor Kim’s office divvied up the local cost share.
“As I understand the numbers, of the $397,000 subsidy, our community and county will pay approximately $20,000, and the balance — approximately $377,000 — will come from the federal government,” Richards said. “The county and mayor stepped up to the plate to secure this so the contract doesn’t lapse, otherwise we’d have to reapply and go through the whole process once again.”
Kohala Coast Resort Association also made a $1,000 contribution.
“Their employees’ families use the Waimea airport,” Richards said.
Presently, the county and EAS Division are working out the logistics and drafting an agreement to extend the contract with Mokulele Airlines.
“I’m guessing it will take a month or two to finalize the paperwork and sign it as I understand it presently,” Richards said. “Waimea’s jurisdiction differs from other towns because it isn’t an incorporated town. That’s why this falls on the county and why it has had to go through our whole process.”
Mokulele Airlines won the four-year EAS contract in 2013 and hoped to renew it. Based on demand, they operate up to four commercial flights to and from Kahului, Maui daily out of Waimea-Kohala Airport on Cessna Caravan planes that seat nine people. Private planes, the military and Hawaii Life Flight — an air medical transportation company — also use the facility regularly.
“Our island needs competition, better pricing for airfares and more routes,” Rep. Evans said. “I fought for an agreement that continues current service, allowing us more time to determine options and opportunities to address demand for interisland flights.”
Until the agreement is signed, there may be some changes in the commercial airline service at Waimea-Kohala Airport.
“I want to give my thanks to Rep. Evans who has worked tirelessly to resurrect this and move it forward,” Rob McKinney said, Mokulele Airline’s president. “We’ve had to adjust our prices slightly and will watch this for the next 30 days, unless the subsidy is restored. We will see what happens, and after 30 days we will probably have to trim the schedule.”
Waimea’s original airstrip, known as Bordelon Field, was built during World War II by Marine Corps on Parker Ranch for training operations. Waimea-Kohala Airport, built on 90 acres in the same area, opened in 1953 with scheduled passenger service on Hawaiian Airlines. During the 1960s, Aloha Airlines also operated flights there. More recently, Pacific Wings provided service to Honolulu and Kahului from Waimea, originally subsidized by the EAS program. In mid-2007 they began serving Waimea-Kohala without subsidy, and in May 2013 the airline ended all service in Hawaii.