KAILUA-KONA — Construction of a permanent Federal Inspection Station to allow for continued international arrivals beyond 2021 at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole remains on track for completion ahead of deadline.
“We’re very confident it will be done by the December 2021 deadline,” said Tim Sakahara, a spokesman with the Hawaii Department of Transportation.
The department awarded the $59.4 million contract to construct the 32,000-square-foot facility to Nan Inc. on Feb. 1. It will be built at the airport’s southern end, a move from the current station housed under a large white tent on the airport’s northern end.
The facility was previously estimated to cost $50 million, however, the addition of the holdroom building, waiting area, and demolition of an old hanger increased the price. Some $69 million was allocated to the project.
The state hopes to begin construction on the Federal Inspection Station in December 2019, but no later than early 2020, Sakahara said. That date is contingent on the completion of construction of a general aviation T-hangar to replace an old one that’ll be demolished to make way for the new federal inspection station.
“It’s in the process, we expect that to be complete later this year,” Sakahara said of the general aviation work.
If all goes as planned, construction is expected to take up to 18 months. Sakahara said the state is looking have the Federal Inspection Station complete by mid- to fall-2021, ahead of deadline.
That December 2021 deadline was set as part of a 2016 agreement by the state and U.S. Customs and Border Protection that permitted the airport to re-establish using — for up to five years — the white tent currently housing the Federal Inspection Station, allowing for the resumption of international direct flights to the airport.
Until the 2016 agreement, no customs and immigration officials had been stationed at the airport’s international tent since 2010 when Japan Airlines ceased flights to Kona. A temporary practice of having charter flights reimburse Customs for flying agents from Honolulu to Kona to staff the customs gateway was ended in 2012.
During construction of the permanent facility, no impact is expected on international arrivals. Flights to and from Japan are the only ones using the facility as flights from Canada clear customs before departing the country.
Those Japan flights’ passengers and baggage will continue to be screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the large white tent while the new facility is being built on the southern end, said Sakahara.
“The interim facility will stay open the entire time,” he said, after noting the millions of dollars Japanese visitors contribute to the state’s economy each year. “It will be in operation, in use up until the first day the new one is up and running.”
Japanese numbers took a hit
Last year, Japanese arrivals to Hawaii Island declined 6.4 percent from 189,551 in 2017 to 177,479 in 2018, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Kona welcomed 152,118 of those arrivals, just 0.6 percent less than in 2017. The Japanese visitor spent an average $247 per day and stayed an average of six days on Hawaii Island.
The year started off strong with a 35 percent increase in arrivals, until the 2018 eruption of Kilauea Volcano began in May resulting in a 30 percent decrease in Japanese arrivals the rest of the year, said Ross Birch, Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau executive director. The eruption sputtered out in August and was declared over in December.
“2017 was a great year, and 2018 got off to a phenomenal start, even to the point where we were looking at other direct access from Japan from different routes,” he said. “We were that excited about the numbers we were seeing, but then as the year went on, we became more concerned with just maintaining the flights we originally had.”
But, Birch said, numbers appeared to be recovering over the past couple of months of 2018. January numbers are due out later this month.
“If we can start showing some better numbers for 2019, it will be much more positive for them to hang on to that flight coming in,” he said.
Once in place, the permanent Federal Inspection Station would guarantee Kona an international designation, providing opportunity to attract other flights from international locales.
“Moving forward, it would allow us opportunities to pursue even something from Australia or New Zealand, or direct from Korea or China at that point,” Birch said, noting the new Federal Inspection Station also ties in with terminal modernization efforts the Hawaii Department of Transportation is currently undertaking.
Modernization project going ‘very well’
As the state moves forward with the Federal Inspection Station, a project to modernize the airport’s terminal is progressing, said Sakahara. Construction, which began in March 2017, is expected to be complete by year’s end.
“That project’s going very well,” said Sakahara. “It’s going to add a lot of efficiency and streamline operations at the airport.”
Among the work is relocating checked-baggage screening operations away from ticketing, building a single, enclosed and air-conditioned seven-lane checkpoint and improving the concession area and restrooms.
Sakahara said once the modernization project is complete, passengers will be able to move freely throughout the airport’s north and south terminals, which is currently not possible because the two terminals operate independently, requiring passengers to go through security to enter either terminal.