New Kalaupapa Air Service Decided Soon

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The final phase for a potential change to Kalaupapa’s air service has begun – three airlines have bid to serve the community with promises to lower airfare, and the comment period from the public ended last week.

The Kalaupapa community has asked the Department of Transportation (DOT) for affordable air fares to and from the remote peninsula, hoping for an airline that will be able to provide three flights a day with wheelchair accessibility. The community said they are not satisfied with Pacific Wings (PW) skyrocketing airfares, which currently provides regular flights to Kalaupapa.

PW’s flights are priced around $500 for a round trip to either Honolulu or topside Molokai. PW, who previously had an Essential Air Service (EAS) subsidy to provide regular service to the settlement, applied again with the DOT in December 2010. This opened up the process to other airlines, and when other airlines began bidding with community support, PW withdrew their application in February 2011.

The EAS program was created in 1978 to guarantee that small communities are provided with scheduled air service, according to the DOT website. The department subsidizes 140 rural communities across the country with about $200 million that otherwise would not receive air service.

Greg Kahlstorf, CEO of PW, said in a past interview with the Dispatch, if Pacific Wings did not have community support in the public comment period, it would withdraw its application and continue to serve without subsidy – and at current prices. He added that PW would serve without subsidies, which could be decreased as the federal budget gets slashed.

The comment period ended last week for the EAS bidding process, with several community members of both Kalaupapa and topside Molokai submitting their comments. Mark Miller, Department of Health (DOH) administrator for the settlement, submitted a letter last week explaining that PW’s increased air fares have “worked contrary to the purpose for an EAS.”

Miller also wrote that the high prices have been the reason for lower visitor numbers, not a disinterest in coming. Visitors flying into Kalaupapa have dropped from 3,000 annually to 900, according to Miller.

“[The DOT] says they listen to local people serviced and local officials” in this process, Miller said at a community meeting in Kalaupapa last week.

Makani Kai Air, Iolani Air and Sovereign Air have applied for the EAS, and all have said in past interviews their fares would be around $150 round trip. They are not, however, obligated to take the subsidy.

“If a contract is awarded to one of the other three airlines, they would be allowed to take a subsidy, and Pacific Wings would be free to either continue service or cease service,” said DOT spokesman Bill Mosley. He added the decision will be issued as soon as possible.

“We’re on the cusp of something great, or more of the same,” Miller said.

Steve Prokop, superintendent of Kalaupapa National Historical Park, also submitted a letter on behalf of his employees.

“I emphasized employee morale, retention and recruitment,” as a reason for needing an airline that would lower the fares, Prokop said. He added that his employees are subject to isolation due to the high fare cost.

Contributed by Molokai Dispatch