A state lawmaker expressed outrage that hundreds of jobs and a valuable North Shore recreational resource for skydiving, gliders and ultralights may be lost following the sudden decision by the state Department of Transportation to cease operations at Dillingham Airfield.
The DOT said Thursday that operating Dillingham Airfield “is not in the best interest of the state of Hawaii,” and is transferring it back to the Army effective July 1.
The agency confirmed what the Army had acknowledged the day before: that DOT wants out of Dillingham.
State Sen. Gil Riviere, whose district includes Mokuleia, Waialua and Haleiwa, called the DOT decision a “tragedy” for the people “getting knocked out of their livelihood” by the agency at the civilian-use airport.
Riviere said the airport has been mismanaged by DOT, while a longtime business operator likened the state agency to an absentee landlord.
“It’s going to be devastating for the hundreds of people who now are not going to have a livelihood due to this decision,” Riviere said, adding that he is asking Gov. David Ige to intercede and reconsider the decision or at least have a longer-term transition for some other entity to possibly take over.
“But if they (DOT) shut this down as they are doing now, they are going to wipe everybody out. There will be no businesses to survive,” he added.
Parts of the Army-owned airfield — most notably the 5,000-foot runway — have been leased by the DOT Airports Division since 1972, the Army said. There are 47 civilian-based aircraft and over 36,000 civilian aircraft flights annually at Dillingham, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The Army has priority use of the airfield for training.
In 2019 the Army and state agreed to a five-year lease extension that expires in 2024 to allow time to negotiate a longer-term lease as requested by the state, the Army said. But DOT decided instead to terminate the lease early — and on short notice.
“What is going on?” Riviere asked. “The Department of Transportation Airports Division is a public entity that works presumably for the public — so I’m failing to see how this is in the public interest, to walk away from an airport that has hundreds of jobs and is a popular recreational asset.”
DOT said Thursday it made the decision after “careful consideration.”
“Dillingham Airfield is the only airport in the (DOT) system that is not owned by the state and it is in the best interest of the state to transfer the airfield back to the Army to manage and maintain,” Director Jade Butay said in a release.
Factors in that decision included the uncertainty of the lease, risk of losing federal funds, a water system maintenance issue and lack of authority over the facility, he said.
Additionally, the DOT Airports Division “subsidizes a million dollars a year for the operation and maintenance at the airfield and we will focus the resources on the remaining 14 airports in our jurisdiction,” Butay said.
Three glider operations, two skydiving centers, hangars for privately owned aircraft and other aviation operations are based at Dillingham, according to business operators.
The FAA also is not happy that DOT wants to terminate operations, saying it provided airport improvement program funding to the state in 2003 and 2005 to extend the taxiway at Dillingham.
“We made that investment expecting a minimum useful life of 20 years,” and the DOT is “obligated to ensure that those improvements and the airport are available for civilian use at least through 2025 in order to comply with its federal obligations,” the FAA said in an email.
“We strongly encourage” the DOT and Army “to reach an agreement for the continued operation and civilian use” of Dillingham Airfield, the FAA said.
The Army said it had been working with the state on a long-term lease for the past year, but on Jan. 23 it received a letter from the DOT announcing the state’s intent to exercise its right to terminate the lease early.
An online petition at change.org was started about a week ago to “keep Dillingham Airfield open for public use.” The petition had generated nearly 7,000 signatures as of Thursday.
The petition, started by skydiver Edward Cope, says there is no other option on Oahu for the skydiving and glider businesses. Some have been at Dillingham for decades, including Honolulu Soaring, which has operated there for 50 years.
Tom Sanders, owner of Paradise Air Hawaii, who has been at Dillingham for 17 years, wrote in an email to Riviere that the airfield is “one of the most unique and amazing aeronautical assets” on the planet and also provides a multimillion- dollar infusion to the North Shore and Oahu community.
Visits by a state-provided airport manager were few and far between, Sanders said.
“I could write pages on how special this location is and what a truly amazing opportunity it is for the state to have access to this for little or no cost but maintenance and management,” he said. “It is criminal that DOT (airports) has never realized how special this property is. They have truly tried to ignore the airport.”
“They (DOT airports) say, ‘Oh, we’ve been losing money’ … and then you go back to, How come you are not managing it more effectively?” Riviere said. “They say, ‘Well, it’s been problems for years,’ and I (say), ‘Exactly. You’ve been mismanaging it for years.’”