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Hawaiian Airlines to suspend ‘Ohana service

Officials say flights are ‘lifeline’ for residents of Molokai and Lanai

An ‘Ohana by Hawaiian turboprop takes to the skies. Hawaiian Airlines announced Friday that it would be temporarily suspending ‘Ohana service starting Nov. 1, spurring concern among officials who say the service is a lifeline for Molokai and Lanai residents. — HAWAIIAN AIRLINES photo

Hawaiian Airlines is temporarily suspending ‘Ohana by Hawaiian flights, a crucial service for Molokai and Lanai residents who have few other options for transporting cargo or traveling off island.

The airline announced Friday that starting Nov. 1, it would temporarily suspend passenger flights between Honolulu and Molokai and Lanai, as well as cargo-only service within the Hawaiian islands.

“While we are disappointed at being unable to avoid the service suspension, this is a difficult situation for both Hawaiian and Empire Airlines as we navigate an incredibly challenging period, and we all remain committed to returning flights to communities that rely on ‘Ohana by Hawaiian,” President and CEO Peter Ingram said in a news release.

Like many other airlines, Hawaiian’s passenger counts and profits have plummeted as travel slowed to a near halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, Hawaiian suspended most flights to and from Hawaii and reduced Neighbor Island service, starting with the Honolulu to Kapalua route. The airline also reduced its workforce by nearly 2,500 employees this month when the CARES Act Payroll Support Program expired.

Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva told The Maui News on Friday that the company will need to furlough additional employees with the ‘Ohana by Hawaiian operations, “but we are still determining how many of our colleagues will be affected.”

“Demand across our network — including on ‘Ohana by Hawaiian routes — has been drastically reduced by the pandemic and travel quarantine restrictions,” Da Silva said. “We sought to retain an essential level of flying to both Molokai and Lanai because we know how important our service is to both communities, but a clause in our pilot contract prevents us from continuing service.”

Under that clause, the airline cannot offer ‘Ohana by Hawaiian flights — which are operated with turboprop aircraft by Empire Airlines as a third-party feeder carrier — when interisland Boeing 717 and Airbus A321neo jet flights operated by Hawaiian’s pilots are severely reduced. Hawaiian said this type of provision is common in the U.S. airline industry.

The company added that the Air Line Pilots Association has agreed to provide relief from the contractual provision if additional Payroll Support Program funding is approved by the federal government and allows Hawaiian to bring furloughed employees back to its payroll.

Hawaiian also could resume ‘Ohana service if interisland travel recovers but said this was unlikely to occur anytime soon.

While the state plans to launch a pre-travel testing program on Oct. 15 that could open the door to more travelers, many expect it to take much longer for the airline and visitor industries to recover.

On Molokai and Lanai, residents depend on commuter airlines for frequent trips to visit family, seek medical treatment and make purchases. The loss of the Molokai ferry in recent years and the decrease in flights during the pandemic has left community members with limited options.

” ‘Ohana by Hawaiian has been a lifeline for the residents of Molokai and Lanai since they began operating six years ago,” said state Rep. Lynn DeCoite, who represents Molokai, Lanai and East Maui. “They are the only option for our residents that are in wheelchairs or those needing physical assistance to be able to travel off island, for most the travel is to Oahu for medical appointments. While I am grateful that they provided this service to our communities, this is another unfortunate casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

DeCoite said in a news release Friday that she had reached out to Hawaiian Airlines to discuss continuing service.

“Due to COVID-19 and the interisland quarantine restrictions, many of our community members on Molokai and Lanai have put off medical appointments,” she said. “Many have not been off island since March. Our kupuna have been checking the news each day to find out when interisland travel will resume so they can book appointments for medical, dental and vision care.”

Maui County Council Vice-Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said she understood Hawaiian Airlines’ situation, as “this pandemic has been a challenge for all of us.”

” ‘Ohana’s suspension will have a tremendous impact on our community, the job losses of ‘Ohana employees and TSA employees, since ‘Ohana is the only airline on Molokai that necessitates TSA, and will restrict our community’s ability to travel because of Mokulele’s limitations, such as its weight limit, wheelchair accessibility and those needing to travel with oxygen tanks,” said Rawlins-Fernandez, who holds the Molokai residency seat.

“We have lost Hawaiian Airlines in the past and I’m confident, as we did the last time, we will figure out how to move forward as a community,” she added.

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino also empathized with Hawaiian’s economic woes while voicing concern for Molokai and Lanai.

“These communities have limited access to resources and rely on ‘Ohana by Hawaiian for everything from medical appointments to essential goods,” he said in a news release. “We will be working to ensure there is necessary support and assistance for our Molokai and Lanai residents.”

Hawaiian said it is contacting guests affected by the suspension to provide refunds. Cargo customers will be offered refunds or, depending on the shipment, the option to have their products transported between the islands with Hawaiian’s Boeing 717 and A321neo aircraft.

Hawaiian launched ‘Ohana by Hawaiian flights in the spring of 2014 and added on all-cargo service in the summer of 2018.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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