Kawehi Inaba, founder of Mokulele Airlines, shares story, lessons from 25 years of entrepreneurship

  • Kawehi Inaba, pictured here around 2003, started taking flying lessons at the age of 23, which ultimately led to her founding Mokulele Flight Service. (Courtesy photos)

  • Kawehi Inaba poses with Stan Little, the current owner of Mokulele Airlines.

KAILUA-KONA — In 1986, Kawehi Inaba was working as a ticket agent at Aloha Airlines. Shortly after boarding passengers onto a Boeing 737 bound for Oahu, she had an intuitive thought – “I want to fly that, I want to become a pilot.”

So, she did. At 23 years old, she started taking flying lessons with American Flyers. At the time, there were no lessons offered at the Kona airport, so she’d work the night shift and then catch the first a.m. flight to Maui for instruction.

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Once Inaba earned her private pilot’s license, instrument rating, and commercial pilot’s license, her initial goal was to become a first officer with Island Air. However, after the company’s minimum hour requirements were doubled from 400 to 800 hours, she decided to start a flight school instead in order to gain additional hours and support her family at the same time. Mokulele Flight Service (Mokulele means “airplane” in Hawaiian) — was founded in 1994.

With little financial resources available, Inaba partnered with an aircraft owner and started offering flying lessons with a little Cessna-150, 2-passenger aircraft. Up in the air with her students, Inaba found her passion — teaching and mentoring others.

“When you’re teaching people to fly, you see people at their most vulnerable with doubts and fears,” said Inaba. “I loved being able to empathize and help students to overcome obstacles and realize their dreams.”

As Mokulele grew, Inaba grew her own family with her husband Don, welcoming their first of three children in 1994. In 1995, Kawehi bought her first plane — a 4-passenger Cessna-172. After earning her FAA 135 certificate, she expanded Mokulele’s offerings to air tours of the Big Island in 1998. To date, she is the first and only Native Hawaiian woman to start a FAA 135 operation.

In short time, Inaba realized she needed help.

She sat down and made a list of all the aspects important in the individual she would be hiring — a local Hawaiian with an A & P mechanics license and someone she could count on to help her grow her business — and then put an ad in West Hawaii Today. The next day, she got a call from Jules Dudoit. He hadn’t seen the ad; he was actually calling to sell her a website for her business. Inaba said she didn’t need a website, but that she did need a pilot.

“Oh yeah?” said Jules, who was a graduate of Spartan School of Aeronautics in Oklahoma.

Yes, and she would love someone who had their A&P mechanic license.

“That’s me,” Jules said, laughing, “but I think you need a marketer more than you need a pilot.”

He ended up doing both.

Soon after he started flying with Mokulele, Jules called up a friend at KAPA Radio to see if they could get a sponsorship. How about a weather report, he suggested. Nope. Surf report? No, already taken. How about a volcano update? “The Hawaiian Eye in the Sky” volcano update was born. Every morning, Mokulele pilots would call in and give a report from their 7:30 a.m. flight over the Kilauea Volcano, helping to boost the small company’s exposure.

In 1999, Mokulele received an OHA loan to purchase a 6-passenger Cessna-206 and soon after added another Cessna-206, a leased Beech Baron, and a 9-passenger Islander to their fleet. After the Sept. 11 tragedy in 2001, tourism to Hawaii took a hit. Inaba noticed at the time that other major airlines like Hawaiian and Aloha were not offering direct flights between Kona and Maui and saw an opportunity for expansion.

In 2003, Mokulele began offering direct on-demand charter flights from Kona to Kahului, Maui for $65. By this time, Mokulele had upgraded its fleet to two 9-passenger cabin class Piper Chieftains.

At first, the flights would have one or two people on them going over and sometimes would be totally empty on the way back. Regardless of how many passengers were on board, they took off anyways, focusing on building trust and a reliable reputation with passengers. This approach paid off. Soon they were filling their planes and expanding their service areas to include all the other islands.

“We took a tiny little airplane and built an airline out of it,” said Jules Dudoit. “It was fun.”

There were bumps, (more like mountains), in the road at times, too.

Inaba recalled one incident in particular when a plane she had just purchased was being ferried over from California. The pilot experienced engine malfunction three hours after takeoff and had to turn back. They were counting on that plane for passengers who had already booked. She had to think on her feet. She purchased a different plane and in the meantime, found passengers seats on other carriers — calling them with a solution, rather than an apology.

“I could not allow fear or frustration to negatively impact the forward movement of me and my team. That’s the biggest thing. Fear can paralyze people,” said Inaba.

In 2003, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs awarded her the Native Hawaiian Business Person of the Year Award.

In 2005, Inaba got a call from a man who wanted to buy Mokulele. As her children were still very young and there were so many things to do as a family, she made a decision to let go and sell the company. Just a few weeks afterward, fuel prices went up and the economy declined, signaling to Inaba that she had made the right decision. Since that first sale, Mokulele has been through five owners. It was most recently bought by Southern Airways. Mokulele Airlines celebrated 25 years in business in 2019.

Today, Inaba works as an independent business consultant with her firm Kupa’a Business Planners. She provides consulting services to Mokulele, as well as dozens of other notable businesses in the Hawaiian Islands. One of her most popular services is secret shopping for restaurants and retail stores who want to improve their customer experience. You can learn more about her business at https://www.kupaabusinessplanners.com.

When I asked Kawehi Inaba what she has learned from her journey in entrepreneurship, she had some solid advice. First, have faith and listen to your na’au (your gut). Second, understand your people, empower, support and encourage them.

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“Put people in positions where they will succeed and they will create success for themselves and for your company,” she said.

Emily Gleason is business writer, https://mthewriter.com/who contributes a monthly business feature, Imua in Business, to West Hawaii Today.

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