WAIMEA — Residents got their chance Thursday night to question representatives of two airlines vying for a contract to offer subsidized air service between the Waimea-Kohala Airport and Kahului, Maui.
Both Mokulele Flight Service, doing business as Mokulele Airlines and which has provided service at the airport for the past five years, and Schuman Aviation Co., doing business as Makani Kai Air, submitted proposals to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will ultimately select a carrier.
Before making a decision, the agency said it would look for views from community members. Comments can be sent to email@example.com and are due Jan. 22.
Thursday night’s presentations during a town meeting in Waimea gave the two companies a venue to make their pitch to community members before one of them is chosen to provide Essential Air Service, a federal program designed to guarantee air service for small communities.
According to their respective proposals, Makani Kai Air’s proposed subsidy of $200,000 a year came in at close to $190,000 under Mokulele’s proposal of $389,783.
But Rob McKinney, president of Mokulele Airlines, has maintained the added value by keeping Mokulele around is well worth the extra cost of the subsidy, pointing to the airline’s practice of flying with two pilots on every flight.
“We do that to make sure that we’re reliable,” he told the crowd. “We do that to make sure that you guys stay safe, because we think that just like every other airline in the world that you fly on has two pilots, so do we, and so we make that investment in all of you.”
McKinney also touted the airline’s partnership with Alaska Airlines, which allows travelers to find flights through online booking companies from mainland locations through to Waimea.
But Makani Kai Air general manager and chief pilot Darryl Grace said Makani Kai offers its own advantages.
Grace said Makani Kai Air has the only certified Cessna service center in the state, and he also promoted Makani Kai Air’s pricing structure.
“This program, guys, we’ve taken out all the games. That’s basically what we’ve done,” Grace said. “We’ve eliminated all the games; we’ve come up with basically a flat fare that you guys would pay no matter what the seat, what the day, what the time, what the season, it doesn’t matter.”
Whereas a fare on Mokulele Airlines might change depending on the day of travel, a ticket on Makani Kai Air would remain constant, Grace said.
But residents at Thursday’s meeting came with questions of their own, particularly over whether there were any plans to resume direct service between the Waimea-Kohala Airport and Honolulu.
One resident said he “used to do Mokulele all the time,” when there were direct flights to Honolulu, while another resident referenced the need for locals to get to Honolulu for medical appointments.
In response, Grace said “everything’s on the table.”
While McKinney agreed that anything’s possible, he said flights between Waimea and Honolulu were discontinued because it wasn’t economically viable.
The subsidy, he explained, is only for flights between the Waimea-Kohala Airport and Kahului, meaning any direct flight to Honolulu would be unsubsidized and likely carry a higher fare.
Another critical point of consideration is how to ensure that the community keeps the Essential Air Service going now that the community is required to share a portion of the subsidy cost.
Under the current contract with which Mokulele is providing Essential Air Service from July 2018 through June of this year, the County of Hawaii has agreed to cover 5 percent of the total subsidy cost, which came to a little less than $20,000.
Most of that came from county contingency funds and R&D, the county agency responsible for promoting tourism. It also included donations, including $1,000 from the Kohala Coast Resort Association.
And should the county lose the Essential Air Service, cautioned councilman Tim Richards, it wouldn’t be easy to get it back.
“In order for us to get the contract back, it would take an act of Congress — and literally, an act of Congress — to get it back for Waimea,” he said.
Richards said they’ve already started looking for funds to keep the contract going into the future, and funding has to be secured by April or May. He said the county is also working with officials on the state and federal level to identify funds.
“Because we have to find that $20,000,” he said, “otherwise we won’t get the federal subsidy.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Waimea Community Association president Patti Cook reiterated the critical need to keep the service in the community.
“We do want to keep this airport alive and thriving,” she said.
Richards said those who are interested in contributing toward the community match can do so through the Waimea Community Association.