Molokai and Lanai will see a significant void in air service following the announcement today that Hawaiian Airlines is temporarily suspending its ‘Ohana by Hawaiian passenger and cargo services to those islands effective Nov. 1.
The suspension of flights will leave just smaller carrier Mokulele Airlines, which uses nine-seat turboprops, as the sole provider of air service to both those destinations.
Hawaiian said it had been seeing low travel demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine restrictions but that it had sought to preserve the service. However, that low travel demand triggered a labor provision in Hawaiian’s pilots contract that affected the airline’s ability to provide ‘Ohana by Hawaiian service.
The state’s largest carrier said the provision, which is common in the U.S. airline industry, prevents Hawaiian from offering ‘Ohana by Hawaiian flights – which are operated with turboprop aircraft by Empire Airlines as a third-party feeder carrier – when interisland Boeing 717 and Airbus A321neo jet flights operated by Hawaiian’s pilots are severely reduced.
“It is an honor to provide essential transportation for the people of Lanai, Molokai and West Maui, and more recently all-cargo service within our state,” Hawaiian Airlines President and CEO Peter Ingram said in a statement. “While we are disappointed at being unable to avoid the service suspension, this is a difficult situation for both Hawaiian and Empire Airlines as we navigate an incredibly challenging period, and we all remain committed to returning flights to communities that rely on ‘Ohana by Hawaiian.”
Hawaiian launched ‘Ohana by Hawaiian flights with 48-seat ATR-42 turboprop aircraft in the spring of 2014, followed by all-cargo service with ATR-72 aircraft in the summer of 2018. ‘Ohana is currently flying three daily round trips between Honolulu and Lanai and four daily round trips between Honolulu and Molokai.
Service from ‘Ohana by Hawaiian between Honolulu and Kapalua in West Maui was suspended in March.
Lifelong Lanai resident Diane Preza said she is disappointed that ‘Ohana by Hawaiian is suspending service.
“The ‘Ohana airlines means a lot to people on Lanai because it’s one of the only ways we can get off the island to go to the doctor or for medical appointments,” she said. “So it’s going to be very difficult for people now. It’s disappointing we lost that service.”
Preza said besides Mokulele Airlines, the only other option now for a resident to get off the island is to take the ferry, which has reduced service, from Lahaina, Maui. Or, for a hotel guest on Lanai, the eight-seat Lanai Air turboprop is available from Honolulu.
Hawaiian said it is contacting guests affected by the service suspension to provide refunds. Cargo customers will be offered refunds or, depending on the shipment, the option to have their products transported between the islands with Hawaiian’s Boeing 717 and A321neo aircraft.
Keith Sisson, chief of staff for Mokulele Airlines, said the carrier flies between 30 and 50 flights a day systemwide in the islands but there is no set number of daily flights to Molokai and Lanai.
“We fly to demand,” he said. “As many people buy tickets, we fly planes.”
Sisson issued a statement following the Hawaiian announcement that indicated Mokulele would meet the potentially increased demand.
“We have dedicated additional aircraft and crews to both Molokai and Lanai, starting November 1st,” the statement said. “There will be no changes in our fares as a result of this, and we are committed to ensuring enough seats to fill the demand each and every day.”
Local aviation historian Peter Forman said Mokulele can be more nimble than Hawaiian during a pandemic.
“The airline with the smallest airplanes is going to be more likely to survive during the pandemic because loads are going to be light,” Forman said. “The pandemic favors a company like Mokulele because it can adjust the number of seats to match the passengers traveling.”
However, Forman notes that when an economic recover occurs that Molokai and Lanai could find themselves needing more air travel.
“The recovery can be much quicker than people expect, and if a vaccine is received in the near future, then Molokai and Lanai could be in a tough situation because it would be hard for an airline with very small airplanes to ramp up their flying enough to handle the new demand,” he said.
Forman said the problem is also compounded by a pilot shortage that could come into play when airlines ramp up their flying schedule.
“Tourism is a smaller part of the economic activity of those islands versus others, but nonetheless, a shortage of airline seats would affect the economies of those islands if sufficient seats cannot be found,” he said.
Hawaiian said that while it could resume ‘Ohana by Hawaiian service with a significant recovery in interisland travel, that situation is unlikely to occur anytime soon.
The airline, one of the state’s largest employers, reduced its workforce by nearly 2,500 employees this month when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Payroll Support Program expired.
Hawaiian said the Air Line Pilots Association has agreed to provide relief from the contractual provision that created the ‘Ohana by Hawaiian suspension if additional Payroll Support Program funding is approved by the federal government and allows Hawaiian to bring back furloughed employees to its payroll.