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Hawaii senator wants airlines to offset coronavirus screening costs

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                State Sen. Glenn Wakai expects opposition from tourism and airline officials about his plan to raise landing fees to cover costs of screening for the new coronavirus. Above, tourists at Waikiki Beach.

    DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    State Sen. Glenn Wakai expects opposition from tourism and airline officials about his plan to raise landing fees to cover costs of screening for the new coronavirus. Above, tourists at Waikiki Beach.

A Hawaii state senator wants to improve airport screening for the new coronavirus and pay for it with increased airport landing fees if necessary.

Sen. Glenn Wakai (D, Kalihi-Airport-Salt Lake) said he doesn’t think “taxpayers should pay to shore up the state’s screening process.”

“Money is going to be hard to come by because of the coronavirus. But more fundamental, those potentially bringing the coronavirus here should pay for it — not local people,” said Wakai, who chairs the Senate’s Energy, Economic Development and Tourism committee.

Wakai’s proposal comes as airlines are struggling with a sharp drop in business. The International Air Transport Association estimated global revenue losses for airlines could reach anywhere from $68 billion to $113 billion.

Wakai asked the state Department of Transportation earlier this week to consider temporarily raising airport landing fees to cover additional costs. But he said Thursday that he was told that doesn’t have to happen yet “as DOT is sitting on an over $4 million surplus from prior collections.”

“I said, ‘Don’t return the surplus — use it for coronavirus screenings,’” Wakai said. “If there isn’t a surplus later, I think we should contemplate raising landing fees.”

Ross Higashi, deputy director of the state DOT’s Airports Division, said the airports system does not get money from the state’s general fund. It generates revenues and pays expenses from concession and airline revenue, Higashi said.

Surplus collections are generally returned as refunds at the end of the year, he said. If collections don’t cover costs, the businesses pay the difference, Highashi said.

As he’s analyzing the cost situation, Higashi wants to reassure the public that the state has enough money to pay for the coronavirus prevention plan at the airports. A $2.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also will support Hawaii’s response, he said. Additional federal funding is pending, too.

“We are doing everything we can under our jurisdiction: passing out hand wipes, bringing in more sanitizer dispensers and refills,” Higashi said.

But Wakai wants too beef up Hawaii’s airport response. He is slated to meet today with DOT and a representative from the Taiwanese government, which he said might offer insight into best screening practices. The effectiveness of airport thermal screening, which Hawaii doesn’t have, is among the topics that Wakai said he’d like to discuss.

“We are trying to use chicken wire to hold back the virus when we need something more robust,” he said. “We can’t expect the honor system to work. We need to be more vigilant.”

Wakai said tourism and airline officials are likely to argue temporarily raising landing fees would deter travelers from coming to Hawaii since it makes the cost of a trip here more expensive. But he believes his proposal is in the public’s best interest.

“For the short term, having things get canceled is actually good for us, we’ll have less problems in the future. Eventually, tourism will rebound back. Health is more important than the short-term benefits of tourism,” he said.

Wakai’s push to have the airlines offset coronavirus screening costs comes amid a host of airline cutbacks.

On Thursday, Asiana Airlines became the latest carrier to reduce Hawaii service. Asiana is suspending its Incheon-Honolulu Flight OZ232/231 on March 9-12, 16-18 and 24-25. Prior to their cancellation, those flights, which have 300 seats, flew seven days a week.

Reductions for United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Korean Air already had been announced over the last week or so.

“Airline share prices have fallen nearly 25% since the outbreak began, some 21 percentage points greater than the decline that occurred at a similar point during the SARS crisis of 2003,” IATA said in a news release.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified an Asiana flight number.

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