Mokulele to try to fill Kapalua airport void

The decision by Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison’s Island Air to pull out of Kapalua West Maui Airport at the end of May has left a void at the airport that Mokulele Airlines – the only other carrier currently with regular flights into the airport – will attempt to fill.

Another player at Kapalua airport could be Hawaiian Airlines and its soon-to-debut ‘Ohana airlines. Its 48-passenger twin-turboprop ATR42 has a passenger capacity closer to Island Air’s 37-seat Dash 8. Mokulele flies only the nine-seater Cessna Grand Caravan.

The most popular connection with Kapalua airport is Honolulu International Airport. Island Air currently flies four round trips a day and Mokulele, six flights a day, on that route.

Ron Hansen, chief executive officer of Mokulele, said last week that the airline will be increasing its schedule to seven flights a day out of Kapalua beginning Monday with the possibility of going to as many as 12 flights a day in June – with a flight every hour or half-hour.

“We recognize the need and intend to respond to it,” he said Wednesday. “We weren’t expecting this. We just want to be able to fill the void that is occurring, and we are happy to provide (the service).”

The timing of Island Air’s announcement could not have been better for the airline. Mokulele had announced the purchase of two more aircraft in early March and was mulling how to use them to increase flights when Island Air’s announcement was made March 22.

Island Air said that it was phasing out its fleet of Dash 8 aircraft and replacing them with new ATR 72s. The airline’s president, Les Murashige, said that the larger aircraft could not land on Kapalua’s 3,000-foot runway.

Instead, the airline plans to start flying into Kahului Airport on April 15, phasing out flights to Kapalua airport until the last set of flights May 31, Island Air said. In addition to the four round trips in and out of Kapalua, the airline operates one Molokai-to-Kapalua flight.

On May 1, that flight will disappear, and Island Air will trim its Honolulu-to-Kapalua schedule to two round trips, the airline’s website said.

“We are pleased that we can expand service to Kahului with the addition of our new ATR 72 aircraft,” said Murashige. “We regret that we will no longer serve Kapalua. However, as we phase out the Dash 8 aircraft, which are reaching the end of their economic life, our larger aircraft will not be able to land on Kapalua airport’s short runway.”

A look back at the airport’s history explains the shorter runway. When Hawaiian Airlines attempted to construct an airport on the west side in the 1980s, its original site at Launiupoko ran into community opposition. One of the complaints was the noise from jets landing at the proposed airport.

After the Launiupoko airport proposal was abandoned, Hawaiian took its airport plans to a site mauka of Honoapiilani Highway, between Kahana and Honokowai. The private Kaanapali Airstrip had closed in 1986, and Hawaiian opened the Kapalua airport on March 1, 1987. It cost the airline $9 million to build, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The airport was tailored to Hawaiian’s prop Dash 7. No jets were allowed at the airport, and operations were limited to daylight hours only.

The state purchased the airport from Hawaiian in October 1992 and took over operations April 1, 1993.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, in 2011 there were 43,898 enplanements, or the number of passengers boarding an aircraft at Kapalua airport, a nearly 10 percent increase from the previous year.

Currently, Mokulele and Island Air offer a maximum daily capacity of 180 seats on Honolulu-Kapalua flights, said Hansen. So even if Mokulele jacks up its schedule to 12 flights a day, which is about all the airline can fly during daylight, there only would be a 108-seat capacity.

That could leave an opening for Hawaiian’s ‘Ohana, which is scheduled to begin flying in the summer. Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Ann Botticelli said in an email Friday that the airline plans to start with flights to Lanai and Molokai, with Kapalua as the third destination.

The ATR42 can land on Kapalua’s short runway, though FAA approval will be required, she said.

Island Air’s abrupt announcement to end Kapalua airport operations has not altered ‘Ohana’s launch plans, Botticelli said.

Hansen said he believes that Hawaiian will try to enter the Kapalua-Oahu route, but he is banking on the “frequency of flights,” an air taxi model, to attract fliers to his airline.

Mokulele’s flight time to Oahu is 42 minutes, longer than the 20 minutes by jet from Kahului Airport, but Hansen said that the actual travel time – when kicking in parking, security checks and longer walks in the larger terminals – is shorter flying his airline.

“People can arrive a few minutes before departure” and still make their flights, he said, noting that Kapalua airport is not subject to federal security.

Hansen described Mokulele passengers as west side residents, time-share vacationers, golfers and others. His airline also carries Japanese nationals, booked through JTB Hawaii, he said.

JTB Hawaii, which currently relies on Island Air to fly Japanese passengers to and from Kapalua airport and Oahu and has a customer service office at the west side airport, is not sure at the moment how Island Air’s decision with affect its business.

“We are going to use Kapalua still,” said Akio Hoshino, president of JTB Hawaii Travel LLC, on Friday. “We don’t know at this moment the complete situation.”

He said flight reservations are made in Japan and that his company works as a “reception operator.” He indicated that he may gain a better view of the situation sometime next month.

Hoshino said that flights from Oahu to Kapalua make up only a small portion of the 400,000 travelers to Hawaii JTB annually serves. Less than 5 percent of that total comes to Maui.

As with Mokulele, the decision by Island Air came at an opportune time for JTB Hawaii. The company had been planning to make a greater effort to bring visitors to Maui and already was planning to increase its travel volume to Kahului Airport, he said.

In fact, builders are currently putting the finishing touches on a lounge at Kahului Airport. It should open sometime next month, Hoshino said.

JTB Hawaii also has purchased two whale-shaped vehicles to serve as tour vehicles for JTB’s clients, said Hoshino. The vehicles can help transport their visitors from Kahului to the west side.

* Lee Imada can be reached at