County and state departments rethinking travel by air

The Lanai plane crash that killed two Maui County Planning Department workers and injured three other county workers has some county and state departments rethinking air transportation to Molokai, Lanai and Hana, officials said last week.

Five county workers were heading back to Maui on a chartered Maui Air flight after a Lanai Planning Commission meeting the night of Feb. 26. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff at 9:23 p.m., 1 mile southwest of Lanai Airport.

Planner Kathleen Kern, Planning Department secretary Tremaine Balberdi and the pilot, Richard Rooney, died in the crash. Three others survived the crash. At last report, county planner Douglas Miller and geographical information systems analyst Mark King remained in critical condition at The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu. Deputy Corporation Counsel James Giroux was in stable condition at Straub Clinic & Hospital, also on Oahu.

Deputy Planning Director Michele McLean said in an email Thursday that her department will “visit the logistics and staffing for meetings on Lanai and Molokai and in Hana.”

“Until then, staff can travel by commercial plane or ferry to Lanai and Molokai and by car to Hana, staying overnight when necessary,” she wrote.

County Communications Director Rod Antone said that the county administration has always allowed county departments to choose what mode of transportation suits their workers best. He acknowledged that because the county encompasses three islands, unlike any other county in the state, no department is immune from taking an airplane or ferry ride to Molokai or Lanai.

For Lanai in particular, finding an affordable place to stay has always been an issue for county departments, he said. There are limited accommodations besides the two luxury Four Seasons hotels, The Lodge at Koele and Manele Bay.

“We are doing research now so our employees have some options,” Antone said. “Our employees have always been cognizant of the fact of when they stay over they are using taxpayer money. Part of the reason they come home is they are trying to be responsible and not cost taxpayers any more than they need to. We are looking for affordable (accommodation) alternatives for our employees.”

The state Judiciary on Friday also planned to discuss the future of commuting by air, as well as alternative modes of transportation to Lanai and Molokai, including the ferry system, in light of the crash on Lanai. As of early Friday evening, there was no report about decisions regarding air travel in Maui County.

“Safety is the Judiciary’s top priority, and we want to make sure they (employees) are comfortable with any transportation arrangements that are made,” Tammy Mori, communications and community relations director for the Hawaii state Judiciary, said in an email Thursday.

“Our heartfelt condolences go out to the victims involved in the crash and their families. The crash sent shock waves through our community and the Judiciary ohana as well,” she said.

Because of the crash, Mori said, Judiciary staff, who typically fly on charter flights to Hana once a month, have elected to drive instead. A van was rented for two sheriff’s deputies and four court staff, including the judge. It appeared that the accepted mode of transportation to Hana will be by automobile, she said.

Court staff traveling to Molokai last week did elect to fly, Mori added.

The crash prompted the cancellation of the March 15 special Lanai Planning Commission meeting, which was to continue the discussion on the Lanai Community Plan update. The department has yet to revise the schedule for the special meetings on the community plan update, McLean said.

The March 19 regular Lanai Planning Commission meeting has been canceled, as well. It is expected that the April 16 regular meeting will go on as planned. McLean said it is “most likely that staff will travel by ferry and stay overnight” for the April meeting.

The Molokai Planning Commission meeting scheduled for Wednesday will not be held because of a lack of agenda items. A public hearing on rule amendments, also planned for Wednesday, will not be held because of a notification publication error, McLean said.

The hearing will be heard March 27 instead.

County staff travels to Molokai by commercial plane or ferry because both modes of transportation have scheduling that can accommodate meeting times, McLean said.

That is not the case for Lanai and night meetings.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at