U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood informed Kalaupapa residents yesterday that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s has committed to offering subsidized air service to and from the isolated peninsula that could reduce fares as much as 60 percent.
The problem with Kalaupapa air service began in July of 2009 just after a conflict arose between the State Department of Transportation and Pacific Wings, the only commercial carrier servicing the isolated peninsula. Pacific Wings employees accused airport security officers of harassment when DOT officials attempted to serve the company a citation at the Kahului, Maui airport.
In response, Pacific Wings stopped flying to all of its Hawaii routes briefly. When service returned, airfare to Kalaupapa more than doubled to a cost of around $500 round trip. The airline also said they could not afford the cost of wheelchair lifts at that time. Pacific Wings CEO Greg Kahlstorf said that the fares more closely reflect the true cost of doing business.
Pacific Wings had earned the federal contract to serve Kalaupapa by being the only airline to decline the federal subsidy. Federal law prohibits another air carrier from entering a market that is already being served subsidy-free.
According to Hawaii’s U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Secretary LaHood plans to find a new provider using an Essential Air Service subsidy that will make flights more affordable for Kalaupapa residents. The EAS federal subsidy will cover up to 90 percent of the ticket price to the winning bid.
Already, a charter service that occasionally flies to Kalaupapa, Makani Kai Charters, has expressed an interest in providing daily service to the site of the Hansen’s disease settlement.
Congresswoman Mazie Hirono said she has been working on the legislative language that could be included in the FAA reauthorization bill the House plans to take up next week. Hirono said that if federal transportation officials resolve the issue administratively, then Congress need not get involved.
Through this competitive bidding process, LaHood said he hopes to have an air carrier ready by summer. He also said federal funds will be used to buy a ramp and related equipment to help accommodate patients and residents dealing with disabilities.
“The Kalaupapa community needs and deserves affordable air service to connect with their families and health care providers and for other necessities,” said Senator Akaka yesterday. “This morning we heard their stories of hardship caused by the high fares and lack of a wheelchair ramp at the airport.”