Airport work flying ahead

  • Construction continues for the airport modernization project at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Construction continues for the airport modernization project at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Workers remove an old gate sign for the airport modernization project at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • An aerial view of the terminal modernization project is shown last week. Construction, which began in March 2017, is expected to be complete by year’s end. (Hawaii Department of Transportation/Special to West Hawaii Today)
  • Construction continues for the airport modernization project at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • An aerial view of the terminal modernization project is shown last week with a Japan Airlines flight arriving to disembark passengers at the temporary Federal Inspection Station, which is located in the upper right corner. (Hawaii Department of Transportation/Special to West Hawaii Today)

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.

  1. Buds4All February 14, 2019 4:53 am

    Has anyone looked into expanding traffic flow and parking lot seems to be fuller and fuller each time I go. Also the Cell lot is a joke, its out by the dumpsters and the overpriced cab drivers smoking lounge!

    1. Kaipo Wall February 14, 2019 11:25 am

      The “over priced cab drivers” are about to go extinct in Kona , due to Uber/Lyft . But just remember , things are never so bad they can’t get worse . They just got worse

      1. Buds4All February 14, 2019 12:04 pm


        1. Kaipo Wall February 15, 2019 8:14 pm

          Lack of guidance, control or enforcement on how the Ubers roll . Speeding , unsafe passing , dodging in & out of traffic , failure to slow down for or observe crosswalks at all , clueless improper parking , etc etc

          1. Buds4All February 16, 2019 9:03 am

            Unfortunately the older cab drivers dive like crap and I am speaking from experience. I really have not had a bad Uber ride, as if I do I block the driver. Can’t do that with the old cab system. I have also called later at night and they said they were not accepting rides and had to walk home. So it’s time to adapt or get left behind!

      2. John Patrick Cooney February 15, 2019 12:24 pm

        Time to add competition for those rude ass cabbies…welcome to the Global Free Enterprise Economy Hawaii.

        1. Kaipo Wall February 15, 2019 8:12 pm

          A bunch of rookie , non-commercial drivers who don’t want to follow the rules and courtesies that all the other airport drivers have long operated by . Apparently little outreach by airport AOC to clue them in on what to do and what not to do . It;s a free-for-all . Accidents waiting to happen .

  2. KonaDude February 14, 2019 7:40 am

    I wonder what type of construction contract they have(.Y.)

  3. Kaipo Wall February 14, 2019 11:19 am

    Keahole Airport should be called Kapakahi Airport – All these plans for all these flights and not enough gates for even the ones we have now ? Hello? SouthWest ? Where they going to park? Inspect , inspect , inspect . What about the gates? And how about Mokulele ? No security scrutiny of inter-island baggage movement ? Really? hmmmm

    1. Kaipo Wall February 14, 2019 11:23 am

      ps: Is anyone monitoring the Uber/Lyft chaos that is taking place at KOA now ? Swarms of independent non-commercial drivers zipping around , driving through crosswalks without watching for pedestrians , while looking at their phones , while driving . It’s a disaster waiting to happen .

  4. Bond February 15, 2019 6:42 pm

    if its NAN it will be late and over budget they’ll ad extras to the max– maybe some of you don’t remember that NAN was brought up on charges for bribing officials to procure government contracts in the early 2000’s in Ohau —well I do

  5. Pono Pulapula February 15, 2019 10:40 pm

    About time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email