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Dillingham Airfield tenants get a reprieve as Hawaii delays shutdown

The state is pushing back by a year its plan to terminate its lease at Dillingham Airfield — giving airport tenants “a little reprieve” in the view of one business owner there.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation said Wednesday its airports division notified tenants at Dillingham that the previously announced termination of June 30 this year has been rescinded due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

DOT’s goal “is to terminate the lease with the U.S. Army by June 30, 2021, and expects that all tenant permits will be terminated by that date at the latest,” the agency said in a release. “Tenants may use this additional time to make alternative arrangements. All terms, conditions, and requirements of the tenants’ permits remain in effect.”

The transportation department acknowledged “that due to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic it may be more difficult for tenants to find suitable alternative locations or move their belongings from the airfield by the original time frame, which is two months from now,” Director Jade Butay said.

DOT said it will continue coordination with the Army, which owns the airfield, and the Federal Aviation Administration on the necessary steps to terminate the lease.

The Army said previously it doesn’t want to be a commercial airport manager and would need a management lease with a government entity.

“From what I understand, to get an airport authority or some kind of organization approved requires legislation, and so I think that now that makes a big difference that we got pushed back a year. So now we actually can introduce legislation,” said Tom Sanders, who has run Paradise Air Hawaii at Dillingham for 17 years. He called it a “little reprieve.”

Sanders said “a whole bunch of politicians signed a letter in favor of keeping the airport open.”

Skydiving, glider, ultralight and other flight operations have used the 9,000-foot runway for decades when the Army isn’t training. But on Feb. 6 DOT said that “after careful consideration” its airports division “concluded that operating Dillingham Airfield is not in the best interest of the state of Hawaii.”

The state “subsidizes a million dollars a year for the operation and maintenance at the airfield,” Butay said previously. Airfield supporters counter that airfield businesses pump millions into the North Shore economy.

The United States Parachute Association said in a March 2 letter that, “Dillingham Airfield is a thriving civil airport with 11 aviation business that employ some 133 people.” Businesses attract some 55,000 visitors each year, it said.

Paradise Air, a flight school that has three powered hang gliders, stopped flying passengers March 13 due to coronavirus. The two big skydiving centers “have been closed for weeks,” Sanders said.

But he thinks businesses there can recover. Many are applying for coronavirus economic impact loans, he said.

“Even when the COVID thing lets us start going back to work, I don’t know how good tourism is going to be anytime soon, so it could be a bit of a problem. But we’re going to certainly try to make it,” Sanders said.

The skydiving centers “have had a good history and they’ve got a pretty good financial situation,” he said.

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