KAILUA-KONA — Waimea residents and others will get a chance next month to weigh in on which of two air service providers they’d rather see offer subsidized flights out of the Waimea-Kohala Airport.
Representatives for the two airlines, Makani Kai Air and Mokulele Airlines, are expected to be present at a Waimea Community Association town meeting at 5:15 p.m. Jan. 3 in the Waimea School Cafeteria.
Essential Air Service, a federal program designed to guarantee air service to small communities throughout the country, is currently provided at the airport by Mokulele Flight Service, doing business as Mokulele Airlines.
Both that company and Schuman Aviation Co., doing business as Makani Kai Air, have submitted proposals for a term that would begin July of next year.
Patti Cook, president of the Waimea Community Association, said Tuesday that the meeting isn’t just to give residents a chance to weigh in on which airline they’d like to see serving in the community, but also to show support for continued Essential Air Service at the airport.
While the Waimea Community Association doesn’t take a stance on who gets the contract, Cook said they do want air service at the local airport to continue.
“We do feel strongly that it’s invaluable to have the direct flights,” said Cook. “And we want to maintain the airport, so that we continue to have a functioning airport in our community.”
Continued Essential Air Service at the Waimea airport was put at risk by rules passed as part of a 2017 federal spending bill that prevented the U.S. Department of Transportation from entering a contract for any community less than 40 miles away from the nearest small hub airport — Waimea, as measured by the feds, is 36 miles from the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport — without a negotiated cost share from the community.
In November 2017, the department announced it would end the subsidy to Mokulele Airlines the following January, and in April, the department reselected Mokulele to provide Essential Air Service at the Waimea-Kohala Airport from July 2018 through June of next year. According to a cost sharing agreement among the U.S. DOT, Mokulele and the County of Hawaii, the county agreed to cover 5 percent of the total subsidy cost, which came to a little less than $20,000.
The majority of that money came from county contingency funds and R&D, the county agency responsible for promoting tourism. That sum also included donations, such as $1,000 from the Kohala Coast Resort Association.
But Cook said the money to guarantee the cost match in the future isn’t yet secured, and they’re hopeful the county and others can continue providing some support for continuing the program.
“That’s definitely the ask, is not just that you’d support it but that you’re able to actually make a financial commitment to it,” she said. “And we know that the county’s stretched, but we’re hopeful that they’ll be able to make that commitment for us.”
The meeting will also give residents a chance to hear directly from representatives of the airlines and ask questions about what they could expect either from sticking with a familiar company or changing up service at their local airport.
Rob McKinney, president of Mokulele Airlines, said the company’s been proud of its role as the community’s local air carrier for the past five years, pointing to schedules to accommodate passengers, an ability to maintain low prices and its commitment to staying in the community during a period when the subsidy disappeared.
“Mokulele has been there for the community,” he said, “and we want to continue to be Waimea’s hometown airline.”
Richard Schuman, president of Schuman Aviation Co., said he recognizes that with Mokulele as the familiar face in town, it can be difficult for someone new to come in.
“We just know what we do,” he said. “For me, I don’t talk a lot; I do. That’s what we’ve been doing for four generations here.”
Both companies in their proposals said they would use nine-seat Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft for their flights and would fly at least 12 roundtrip flights weekly from Waimea to Kahului — and Mokulele proposes two roundtrips per day— but the two each made the argument that their respective business would be better for the customer.
At $200,000 a year, Makani Kai Air’s proposed subsidy is close to $190,000 under Mokulele’s proposed subsidy of $389,783.
Mokulele’s proposal said its number represents the deficit between what it’s expected to cost to run the Kamuela-Kahului service minus the anticipated revenue.
Asked about his $200,000 figure, Schuman said he “just picked it out of the sky,” saying he’s confident he could do the service at that rate.
But a lower number shouldn’t be the only consideration, said McKinney.
“When you go out shopping, you don’t necessarily buy the absolute most cheapest thing that you possibly could because typically you get what you pay for,” he said, referencing his company’s safety record and a nearby maintenance base that makes the higher cost worth the investment.
And considering the local costshare of 5 percent, he said, the difference to the county is less than $10,000. And what Mokulele brings to the table in terms of safety, having two pilots for every flight and the infrastructure the airline has on Hawaii Island, “it’s a great value.”
And while the cost of a one-way ticket is close — McKinney said fares on the route averaged about $72 and Schuman said a Makani Kai Air fare would probably be about $75 on the route — Schuman said Makani Kai Air’s fares won’t change day-to-day.
Whereas a fare on Mokulele Airlines might vary depending on the day of travel, Schuman said a Makani Kai Air ticket would have one price, “every seat, every flight, every day.”
He said that’s how the company runs its Honolulu-Molokai and Molokai-Maui flights, for which the price stays constant at $50.
“In my case — I almost never say ‘never’ — but I’m pretty much never, as long as I run this company, going to have these prices that fluctuate,” he said.