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Pending bill would let Kona accept international flights

KAILUA-KONA >> The Kona International Airport may soon be able to accept international travelers again thanks to a few words in a Homeland Security funding bill.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, said he added language to the bill that would give U.S. Customs and Border Protection more flexibility and possibly allow them to staff the Kona airport again, West Hawaii Today reported.

A stone and tent-like structure processed international arrivals in the past, but it hasn’t been used in more than five years because of security concerns.

The bill should be finalized in September, and Schatz said the language has already been approved by a subcommittee that deals with tourism, which he chairs.

“We’re hopeful right now; we’ve been encouraged by the support,” Schatz said. “This issue is very important to the Big Island.”

Schatz’s proposal is part of a two-pronged approach to bring commercial international airlines back to Kona. That would not only boost tourism on the Big Island but also relieve some of the stress at the busy Honolulu International Airport.

The senator and Gov. David Ige have been working with Homeland Security to allow international travelers to be pre-cleared at some departure ports, which would help avoid long lines upon arrival and allow them to land in places without the facilities to process them.

The plan announced in May would include negotiations with 10 foreign airports, including Narita, Japan.

Preclearance at Narita would boost arrivals from not just Japan but other Asian countries because it is a major international hub for the region, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Ross Birch, executive director of the Big Island Visitor’s Bureau, said West Hawaii is ideally positioned to reap the benefit of Japanese demand. Five to 10 charter flights from Japan arrive on the island annually, most of them in Kona, he said.

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