State DOT proposes Kalaupapa Airport projects

Firefighting vehicle garage, renovated terminal planned

The state Department of Transportation is proposing to build a firefighting vehicle garage and install a new automated weather system at the Kalaupapa Airport, among the many changes that would help bring the facility up to speed with federal standards.

Plans also call for renovating the airport terminal building, replacing runway lighting and improving wheelchair access, according to a draft environmental assessment published in Monday’s edition of the Office of Environmental Quality Control’s “The Environmental Notice.”

Located within Kalaupapa National Historical Park, the airport is managed jointly by the state Department of Health and the National Park Service. It was originally built around 1931 to 1933 and consisted of a graded, unpaved landing strip. A terminal building was constructed in 1951, and the airstrip was paved in 1953.

Today, the airport includes a 2,700-foot-long runway and three buildings — a terminal, maintenance/office building and a storage/mail shed. Air service to Kalaupapa takes place two to four times a day, weather permitting. Mail, freight and perishable food arrive by cargo plane on a daily basis.

Over the past three decades, daily exposure to the nearby ocean and high winds have caused “rapid deterioration and corrosion on the buildings,” according to the assessment. The proposed project would repair damaged portions of the terminal, including installing hurricane-resistant vinyl windows, as well as upgrading electrical and fueling equipment at the maintenance building.

Other steps would bring the buildings up to the current standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, including expanding the lanai and walkway along the west side of the building to provide a permanent storage location for wheelchair lift equipment. Relocating the wheelchair lift would provide better access to the tarmac, and the west side walkway would also be widened for wheelchair access.

Meanwhile, runway and taxiway lights will be upgraded to LED lights, a more visible and cost-saving option. The airport’s PAPI system, a visual aid for pilots approaching the runway, “is approaching the end of its useful life” and is also due for an upgrade.

A new 988-square-foot aircraft rescue firefighting storage garage is also in the plans. The firefighting truck is located in Kalaupapa town, and response time to the airport is about 15 to 30 minutes. The new station at the airport will provide space for one truck and improve safety for travelers.

Another feature lacking at the airport is an automated weather observing system. Currently, the only weather indicator for pilots is a windsock stationed along the runway. The new weather system would consist of five to six devices routinely detecting and reporting cloud cover and height, visibility, precipitation, wind speed and direction, temperature and other relevant data.

The department plans to start construction once all permits have been approved, possibly sometime this year. The project is expected to take five years and end around 2023. The department’s Airports Division would foot the estimated $5 million bill.

Kalaupapa Airport is part of the federal Essential Air Service Program, which subsidizes air service for hard-to-reach communities. In March, the U.S. Department of Transportation accepted Mokulele Airlines’ proposal to service Kalaupapa without a subsidy. However, that concerned residents and workers who recalled ticket prices skyrocketing the last time an airline operated without a subsidy. (Now-defunct airline Pacific Wings charged $500 per round trip between Kalaupapa and Honolulu.)

Mokulele President Rob McKinney assured residents in March that flights would stay affordable. The airline started operating in Kalaupapa after Makani Kai Air’s Essential Air Service contract expired on May 31. On Mokulele’s website, flights are going for $71 from Kalaupapa to Honolulu and $61 from Honolulu to Kalaupapa. Flights between Kalaupapa to topside Molokai were ranging from $50 to $85 one way.

Janice Okubo, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, said Thursday that so far, “Mokulele has kept their prices reasonable, but the community has had challenges with changing flight schedules and flights being adversely affected by weather conditions.”

A measure recently passed in the U.S. Senate could offer some reassurance to the Kalaupapa community. The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018, which passed the Senate 93-6 on Wednesday, ensures funding for the Essential Air Service program through 2022 and oversight for Kalaupapa’s air service.

A provision authored by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii would require the department’s inspector general “to review the agency’s oversight over unsubsidized carriers to ensure air service quality and community satisfaction,” according to Hirono’s office.

The inspector general would have to complete a one-time review of all Essential Air Service orders or contracts from 2005 through 2018. The review would look into unsubsidized carriers who received Essential Air Service contracts to determine whether they had provided basic essential air service, and whether the department provided sufficient oversight to ensure air service quality and community satisfaction. The inspector general also would review whether the department properly communicated air service changes to the community and how it monitored the quality of air service provided by the unsubsidized carrier.

The inspector general would then have to submit a report to Congress no later than 30 days after completing the review.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at