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State, county officials seek international flights to Kona

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 2:01 p.m. HST, Jan 28, 2014

KAILUA-KONA » Hoping to lure international travelers, Big Island and state officials are seeking a five-year exemption from the federal government in meeting security standards at Kona International Airport.

The exemption would allow officials to reopen an international inspection facility that closed in 2010. The lack of a U.S. customs facility is hindering efforts to bring international flights to Kona, West Hawaii Today reported.

The airport does not meet federal technical design standards for passenger processing facilities, according to U.S. Customs officials.

"Unfortunately, I cannot approve the request for a five-year exemption," Brian Humphrey, director of field operations for Customs' San Francisco office, said in a Dec. 24 letter to Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi.

A practice of having customs reimbursed by charter flights for flying agents from Honolulu to Kona to staff the customs gateway there came to an end in 2012.

Kenoi said he met briefly last week with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and the topic was assigned to an assistant secretary. The issue also was discussed with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii's 2nd District. Gabbard sits on the Homeland Security Committee.

"We got a little further. We have a contact," said Kenoi, who was in Washington to attend a winter meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors. "The more people we can talk to get it off the desk and start making progress, the better off we will be."

Also working on the issue is the state Department of Transportation. The state wants the federal extension to give it time to design a facility and new airport procedures to meet the requirements, according to agency spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter. The project is estimated to have a $35 million price tag.

"It's a very important issue for us," Sluyter said. "We feel there is a demand for direct flights coming in from Japan to Kona."

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