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Officials: Mokulele filling void on Molokai and Lanai

Lawmakers still concerned over wheelchair access

Mokulele is now the sole airline servicing Molokai and Lanai after ‘Ohana by Hawaiian stopped servicing the islands on Jan. 15. Lawmakers said that Mokulele is filling the void, but they still have concerns over weight and accessibility issues. MOKULELE AIRLINES photo

State and county lawmakers say Mokulele Airlines is currently meeting the needs of Molokai and Lanai since the departure of larger carrier ‘Ohana by Hawaiian, though they still have concerns over weight and accessibility issues with the smaller aircraft.

Hawaiian Airlines suspended its ‘Ohana by Hawaiian service to Lanai and Molokai and halted flights beginning Jan. 15. Low air traffic due to travel restrictions triggered a provision in labor contracts that prevented Hawaiian from offering its third-party passenger and all-cargo service, Hawaiian has said.

It added that the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that essential air service to the islands will be sufficiently maintained by Mokulele.

Mokulele, which merged brands with Honolulu-based Makani Kai Air in June due to the decreased demand brought on by travel restrictions, said in a news release last week that the combined entity has stabilized the commuter airlines market in Hawaii.

The merger has “positioned Mokuele to be able to withstand the hardships caused by the quarantines,” the company said.

The airline added that it has also worked to address concerns from the community when news came in October about the upcoming suspension of service by ‘Ohana. One of the primary concerns has been Mokulele’s ability to carry the passengers and cargo that the much larger ‘Ohana aircraft could accommodate.

Mokulele said it has wheelchair lifts to ease the boarding process for passengers and that it can also transport passengers weighing up to 400 pounds. The airline is completing an alternative boarding procedure and seating configuration to accommodate persons of size.

Booking of flights for passengers of size and limited mobility must be done by calling Mokulele’s Call Center at (808) 495-4188.

Mokulele Executive Vice President Richard Schuman said that the airline is ready to rebuild its Molokai flight schedule as demand increases. Prior to COVID-19, it was offering departures to and from Molokai every half-hour.

Schuman added that they have added extra daily flights for Lanai and will offer more if needed.

“We have plenty of planes and plenty of pilots that are ready to serve,” Schuman said. “Should the demand dictate, we could offer flights from the Lanai airport every hour.”

State Rep. Lynn DeCoite, whose district includes Molokai and Lanai, said she is working with Mokulele and confirmed the airline will add more flights if needed, though they are not flying at capacity now.

DeCoite said there are still issues that need to be worked out. She questioned what would happen if a passenger were over 400 pounds and whether they would need to take an air ambulance flight instead if they needed treatment on Oahu.

There are also some residents who are claustrophobic and do not want to fly a commuter aircraft that typically has nine seats, DeCoite said. ‘Ohana’s planes were more spacious and had nearly 48 seats, according to Hawaiian’s website.

DeCoite said she worked with ‘Ohana on using their ramp to help passengers needing assistance to board Mokulele. With the ramp, the commuter can now take passengers who weigh up to 400 pounds.

She said that the people holding signs at the airport saying “no come” to Molokai are not helping the situation and that travelers are needed to sustain the air service.

“Now the plane is not coming to help our people,” DeCoite said.

If the air industry needed monetary relief or other assistance in the future, DeCoite said the burden shouldn’t only fall solely to the state and that all options should be considered, including county and federal aid.

Maui County spokesman Brian Perry said Thursday that in general, Mayor Michael Victorino “has advocated for convenient, consistent and reliable air service for all residents of Maui County” and especially those in remote areas, including Molokai and Lanai, which rely on the service for essential needs.

But in regards to state lawmakers possibly calling on the county for assistance, Perry said Victorino “is unable to comment without a specific proposal to consider.”

Maui County Council Vice-Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, whose residency district is Molokai, said Thursday that she is grateful for Mokulele’s efforts in accommodating the needs of Molokai residents after ‘Ohana’s departure.

But there are still challenges that need to be addressed, such as service provisions for wheelchair passengers that she said she is actively seeking solutions for.

Council Member Gabe Johnson, who holds the Lanai residency seat, could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

Jacob Aki, director of communications for the Hawaii state Senate, said that Maui Sen. J. Kalani English also had concerns over the size of the plane and accommodations for passengers in wheelchairs.

For now, English is not thinking of introducing legislation regarding the matter, Aki said, adding that the senator will monitor the situation.

Aki added that English and DeCoite are in contact with Hawaiian Airlines and appreciate what the company did during COVID-19 in keeping ‘Ohana’s service running.

He said the lawmakers “hope this isn’t the end” and that once life resumes more normally, Hawaiian can again offer its ‘Ohana service.

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

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