Hawaiian resumes service to West Maui airport

After a 24-year hiatus, local airline returns to the airport it built

An ‘Ohana by Hawaiian 48-seat ATR-42 turboprop aircraft taxis beneath a water lei shot by airport firefighters, kicking off Hawaiian Airlines’ return to service at the West Maui airport. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

After a 24-year hiatus, Hawaiian Airlines made its return to Kapalua Airport on Wednesday.

Hawaiian Airlines left West Maui in 1993, shutting down operations at the airport it built, after retiring its 50-seat De Havilland Dash-7. The airline no longer had a plane equipped to handle the short 3,000-foot runway and smaller passenger loads that the airport attracts.

But in 2014, Hawaiian Airlines started its ‘Ohana by Hawaiian service with ATR-42 turboprop aircraft that can seat 48, ideal for smaller airports such as Molokai and Lanai — where the planes have been operating — and Kapalua.

Wednesday’s flight from Kahului to Kapalua was greeted with a water lei by the state Airport Rescue Fire crew. About 35 airline and airport workers, security and hula dancers cheered on the tarmac as the plane arrived, a half an hour late due to rain on Oahu that hampered air travel statewide.

Hawaiian’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer Peter Ingram still managed a smile and a shaka as he exited first from the plane as raindrops began to fall. Passengers were greeted with lei, music and food.

Passengers getting off Hawaiian Airlines’ first flight into Kapalua Airport since 1993 are greeted on the rainy tarmac Wednesday by members of the Hawaiian Airlines Serenaders. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The celebration wasn’t only about the return of air service to West Maui by Hawaiian. Wednesday also marked the 30th anniversary of the opening of the West Maui airstrip built by and named after John H. Magoon, the late Hawaiian Airlines owner and chief executive officer. The airport’s three-letter designation JHM honors Magoon.

On March 1, 1987, the airport owned by Hawaiian Airlines opened and welcomed its Dash-7 flights. It followed the 1986 closing of the small airstrip between the sugar cane fields and the beach at Kaanapali that opened in the early 1960s. Royal Hawaiian Air Service was the only carrier authorized to bring passengers in and out of that Kaanapali airstrip, according to information from Hawaiian Airlines. News reports and old-timers say the Kaanapali Airport closed to make room for development in the area.

In 1993, Hawaiian Airlines sold the Kapalua airstrip and terminal to the state.

“It’s wonderful to be coming full circle again, after starting service exactly 30 years ago today,” said Ingram to airline, state and Transportation Security Authority officials and others, including members of Magoon’s family.

During a break in the festivities, Ingram said the airline never wanted to leave Kapalua but needed the right type of aircraft to fit at smaller airports.

Former Hawaiian Airlines pilot and current archivist Rick Rogers presents the new historical display on a terminal wall at Kapalua Airport on Wednesday. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“This is helping to complete that destiny in returning to West Maui airport,” he said.

While the ATR-42 has 48 seats, ‘Ohana typically flies with about 35 passengers because of the shorter runway, Ingram said. ‘Ohana has two round-trip flights daily from Kapalua to Honolulu International Airport and one flight between Kapalua and Kahului Airport.

‘Ohana joins Mokulele Airlines to offer regularly scheduled service at Kapalua Airport. State Department of Transportation officials said chartered flights by other companies also use the airport.

Last year, the airport handled about 32,000 passengers, the DOT said.

Hawaiian Airlines has hired eight people to handle the ground service at Kapalua, airline officials said.

Marvin Moniz

As for how ticket sales are going, Ingram said, “We are still in the really early stages.” Hawaiian is marketing the new service, and airfares for flights currently are discounted, he said.

Hawaiian’s return to Kapalua did not go smoothly, which Ingram acknowledged. The airline announced plans to resume service to Kapalua on Jan. 18 and began selling tickets. However, ticket sales had to be halted when airline officials realized a TSA checkpoint would not be ready in time. Airports with planes carrying more than 19 seats must have a checkpoint.

TSA and state Department of Transportation officials rushed to quickly hire six TSA screeners to man the checkpoint and to set up the infrastructure at Kapalua. A process that normally takes several months was completed in 50 days, airline officials said.

Maui District Airport Manager Marvin Moniz said he thinks the new service is great. It will help the West Maui economy and offer a transportation option when Honoapiilani Highway, the main artery between Central and West Maui, is closed due to traffic accidents, fires or weather issues.

Moniz was in attendance at Kapalua Airport when it opened 30 years ago. His first full-time job was with Hawaiian Airlines as a ramp and maintenance crew member and baggage handler.

“It’s touching to me,” Moniz said as he waited on the tarmac for the flight to arrive Wednesday. “I watched the first flight land here 30 years ago.”

He joked that it also rained 30 years ago. Wednesday’s flight arrived under gray skies and intermittent raindrops.

There were other connections and similarities between the first flights 30 years apart. Capt. Ken Rewick, who flew a Dash-7 into Kapalua 30 years ago, recalled landing in Kona winds that day three-decades ago as well. This time, though, he was a passenger.

Rewick, who is vice president of flight operations for Hawaiian, said pilots have to deal with Kona winds at Kapalua only about 10 percent of the time. Normally in trade wind conditions, planes approach from the south; under Kona conditions, they approach from the north.

Rewick recalled that his Dash-7 flight 30-years ago carried the King of Tonga. At the airport, the Tongan community put together “quite a gala event,” Rewick recalled.

Also attending Wednesday’s festivities was Jeanette, wife of the late John Magoon. She, too, had been at Kapalua 30 years ago.

“It’s a little nostalgic,” she said. “Makes me very proud I’m his wife.”

Seeing her husband’s picture on a 9-by-12-foot mural depicting the history of Maui’s airports, she said: “It’s like he isn’t gone.”

Mr. Magoon, who had a leadership role in Hawaiian from 1964 to 1989, is credited with the introduction of jet service in the islands, flights to the West Coast, as well as cargo and charter operations.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.