Post-pandemic, travel to and from Molokaʻi has become increasingly frustrating for residents with just one airline servicing the island and no other transportation options

ʻAla Haliniak-Kali of Manaʻe, Molokaʻi, is expecting her third baby in late July.

Considered “higher risk” because she is over 35, Haliniak-Kali goes to a fetal diagnostics center in downtown Honolulu once a month to monitor her baby’s development. It’s just a 10-minute appointment but getting to Oʻahu from Molokaʻi and back home again is not always easy.

On more than one occasion, Haliniak-Kali has found herself stranded on Oʻahu unable to get a flight home after her appointment. “It’s because there’s no more flights or no more seats.” She said that her insurance provider, AlohaCare, does not always schedule her travel far enough in advance and seats on Mokulele Air, the only carrier currently serving Molokaʻi, are limited and fill up quickly.

Mokulele is the only airline serving Molokaʻi

Haliniak-Kali described taking a 9:00 a.m. flight to Honolulu for a 2:45 p.m. appointment and then having to wait until 5:30 p.m. the following day to get on a flight home. “It’s a struggle for me every month,” she said.

Post-pandemic, travel to and from their island has become a serious pain point for Molokaʻi residents. And at the center of the controversy is Mokulele Air.

Photo: Crowd of Mokulele passengers
A crowd of Mokulele passengers wait to board their flight in Honolulu. Ongoing problems with flight delays, cancellations and limited capacity has vexed the Molokaʻi community. Since the pandemic abated, Mokulele is the only airline still serving the island of Molokaʻi. – Photo: Gayla Haliniak

Prior to the pandemic, Mokulele Air was one of three airlines serving Molokaʻi. Founded in 1994 by Rebecca Kawehi Inaba, Mokulele is the first airline founded by a Native Hawaiian woman. She sold the airline in 2005 and over the next 14 years it navigated a series of agreements, owners and partnerships until February 2019 when it was acquired by Florida-based Southern Airways, one of America’s leading commuter airlines.

The merger was completed in February 2020, a month prior to the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown. Four months later, Southern Airways announced the merger of Mokulele Air with competitor Makani Kai Air. The third carrier, ʻOhana by Hawaiian, halted its passenger service in early 2021 and ceased operations altogether in May 2021, citing “the severe decline in Neighbor Island travel demand resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

As Hawaiʻi emerged from the pandemic and inter-island commuter traffic resumed, having just one airline to serve Molokaʻi – when previously there were three – has been a difficult adjustment. For most residents, the affordability, availability and reliability of air travel to and from their island has become a major concern.

This is especially true for people, like Haliniak-Kali, who must travel to Oʻahu or Maui for specialized medical appointments or treatment.

For residents, the need for reliable air service for medical care has never been greater. Late last year Molokaʻi suffered the unexpected loss of two long-time resident physicians – Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli and Dr. William Kāneloa Thomas. Their passing, within months of one another, left 60% of Molokaʻi residents without a primary care physician (see related story on page 15).

But trying to get doctors to Molokaʻi – or get the residents to their doctors – is an ordeal made exponentially more difficult when air service is considered unreliable. Patients and doctors alike cite delayed or canceled flights as one of the biggest obstacles to getting Molokaʻi people the medical care they need.

“A lot of our community members wait. I mean, dentist and doctor appointments – they wait months and months to even get these appointments. And then when they finally get it, their flight gets canceled, or delayed to where they miss their appointments. Iʻve had it happen to my family,” said community advocate Hawaiʻiloa Mowat.

In early May, Dr. Kaʻohimanu Akiona, a Hawaiʻi Island-based family physician opened a clinic on Molokaʻi in an effort to help fill the void. And in the process, she has experienced first-hand the travel challenges that Molokaʻi residents face.

“Every week I lose about four to six hours in delays, just sitting at airports,” Akiona said. Factoring in flight cancellations and delays, Akiona spends an estimated 10-12 hours traveling each week to maintain clinic hours on Molokaʻi from Monday to Wednesday, and clinic hours on Hawaiʻi Island from Thursday to Saturday.

Currently, Mokulele only offers Molokaʻi travelers direct flights to/from Maui and Oʻahu.

For now, Akiona is willing to accept the inconveniences associated with traveling to Molokaʻi each week. Her greater concern, however, is the impact that the unreliability of flights to and from the island has had on some of her patients.

“They’re choosing not to take [off-island] appointments with specialists because it’s ‘humbug’ and they could potentially be stuck on another island.” Akiona said that one kupuna whom she tried to refer to an off-island specialist refused telling her, “Nah, that’s okay. More better I die maybe.”

“That really bothered me,” said Akiona. “Even if they’re kidding, somewhere in there is a grain of truth about how they feel.”

There are many anecdotes about residents getting stranded off-island for hours or even days.

Maui County Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who represents Molokaʻi, shared that recently her 7-year-old niece had to travel to Oʻahu for outpatient ear surgery. “She was traveling with my mom. Their return fight was at 2:00 p.m. [but] they were delayed until 10:00 that night. They waited at the Oʻahu terminal for eight hours! It started getting cold and because their flight was supposed to be at 2:00 they hadn’t packed jackets. And there’s no food at that terminal. Just vending machines.”

Rawlins-Fernandez, who commutes to Maui for work, says that in order to make a 9:00 a.m. meeting she normally flies to Maui the night before to avoid being late or missing her meeting entirely. “I don’t want to do that because it means I have less time to spend with my family [but] I can’t trust that Mokulele won’t change my flight time on me. But not everyone has that kind of flexibility or opportunity to accommodate Mokulele’s unreliable schedule,” she added.

Mowat says that the airline’s customer communication could use improvement. He and others describe arriving at the airport only to learn that their flight has been canceled or rescheduled. Sometimes they get text messages or calls ahead of time. Sometimes they don’t.

Hawaiʻi State Sen. Lynn Pualani DeCoite (who represents Hāna, East and Upcountry Maui, Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi) lives on Molokaʻi and commutes to Oʻahu. She has also experienced numerous airline delays and cancellations and shares the frustrations of her community.

During the 2023 legislative session DeCoite introduced a bill to create an airline subsidy program designed to provide $1 million to airlines operating out of Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi. Although DeCoite’s Bill had support in the Senate, it was killed in the House.

DeCoite said that the bill was an effort to address complaints about high prices. “We were trying to offset the cost of airfare and [give] other airlines the opportunity to step into the market and provide competition and options for our residents.”

Although the bill died, DeCoite was able to get the Senate to pass a resolution urging the Department of Transportation to establish a working group to evaluate options to provide additional air service to remote and underserved communities.

“I put the reso in because although it doesn’t have much teeth, I wanted to keep the conversation going for us to look at other options for transportation,” DeCoite said.

There is a perception that having just one airline serving Molokaʻi has created a monopoly for Mokulele with residents paying the price.

“Reliability is the biggest problem, but the salt in the wound really is the cost,” said Rawlins-Fernandez. “When you pay a lot you expect good quality in return, right? But we’re paying high prices for very low quality service.”

“I think the most immediate fix would be another airline for another option,” Mowat said. Competition just brings better prices. It brings better service, you know? Yes, it’ll take business away from Mokulele, but it’s also gonna take pressure off of them because they obviously don’t have enough working planes to service our island the way we need to be serviced.”

But Mokulele Air Chief of Staff Keith Sisson said there is not enough business on Molokaʻi for two airlines.

“Two airlines would mean that neither would be profitable. Mokulele is able to remain viable on Molokaʻi due to the volume of business, not the airfare that we charge. If passenger volume were to decrease we would need to raise fares to offset the revenue loss and we would be forced to reallocate assets (like aircraft) to other markets.”

Despite the desire of Molokaʻi residents for a second carrier to service their island, it is unlikely that will happen any time soon.

“I’ve reached out to just about every airline – Hawaiian, United, Delta, Alaska, Southwest – most of them responded that they don’t have [small enough] planes for the size of our runway,” DeCoite said. Several airline executives told her that the length of the runway at Molokaʻi Airport would need to be extended before they would consider servicing the island.

DeCoite added that Mokulele executives have told her that part of the problem is that they’ve been challenged to find and keep employees because their pilots and mechanics are being recruited to work at larger airlines offering higher salaries and signing bonuses. “And if it’s not that, it’s weather challenges or mechanical breakdowns.

“With all the horror stories and the delays and cancellations, no matter what they tell the community nobody believes them already. We need consistency from Mokulele. And the consistency is not there.”

In response to criticism about Mokulele’s consistency and reliability, Sisson said the company has recently made considerable improvements. “One of the most impactful things that we have done is that we increased the ground time between flights and lengthened the flight time of each flight. This means if we get behind early in the day, we can get back on schedule. Even on our bad days, most of our flights operate on time. I think it takes quite a while for people to forget about a delayed flight that disrupted their plans.”

He also noted that, recently, all inter-island carriers have experienced delays due to runway construction in Honolulu.

According to Sisson, Mokulele is investing in Molokaʻi to keep fares stable and provide more seats during peak demand times. That includes adding planes to their original fleet of nine- passenger Cessnas. Two Saab 340 turboprop aircraft with capacity for 30-36 passengers have already been added and a third Saab is on schedule to arrive in late summer. In addition, the company has also acquired three 11-seat Tecnam P2012 Travellers that should arrive from Guåhan (Guam) sometime this month.

Although residents looked forward to Mokulele’s acquisition of the larger Saab aircraft, there were several mechanical failures early on – including a frightening incident on May 2 when a Saab carrying the Molokaʻi High School Robotics Team to Oʻahu lost an engine mid-flight over the Kaʻiwi Channel. Fortunately, no one was injured but the event did not generate community confidence.

“I do see Mokulele trying to improve,” Mowat said. “But when they said they brought in new airplanes, we found out that wasn’t brand new airplanes, those are older airplanes. So that’s why they’re getting all these problems.”

“They buy used planes. There’s a risk whenever you buy a used car – are you buying a lemon? If you’re not buying brand new, I would expect them to have a pretty reliable team of mechanics,” Rawlins-Fernandez said.

Meanwhile, some Molokaʻi commuters have simply given up on airplanes.

Photo: Private watercraft
With just one airline serving Molokaʻi, some residents are using their own boats to get them and their families to Maui for work or medical appointments. – Photo: Gayla Haliniak

Kawika Puaʻa lives on Molokaʻi but works on Maui Monday through Friday, returning home to his ʻohana on the weekends. Last March, after too many delayed or canceled flights left him stranded, he started taking his boat to work.

“It was just really hard. I was either getting stuck on Maui and not able to come back home, or stuck at home and not able to go back to Maui for work.”

It takes Puaʻa about an hour to cross the Pailolo Channel to Maui, and gas costs him about $250 for the roundtrip. “Roundtrip airfare on Mokulele costs about the same,” he said. “Like for me, I would rather pay that $250 for my fuel so I can go when I want to go, and get home when I want to get home.”

Because his ʻohana and friends know he is traveling to Maui and back each week, they sometimes ask him for help if they can’t get a flight off the island. “Friends and family are like, ‘Hey, can we jump on? We need to get to a doctor’s appointment and they’re not flying out.’ I’m just going to work, and people are jumping on [the boat] with me.”

In an effort to give the people of Molokaʻi another transportation option, the Maui County Council is considering a creative solution – the purchase of a ferry service.

Councilmember Gabe Johnson, who represents Lānaʻi, is spearheading the county’s acquisition of Expeditions, a ferry service currently providing transportation between Lānaʻi and Maui.

“The council unanimously supported a feasibility study for the county to own Expeditions,” explained Rawlins-Fernandez. “There’s a federal grant [available] for small municipalities owning ferry services so we’re going to explore that idea for the county to own Expeditions and expand the service to Molokaʻi.”

Rawlins-Fernandez is optimistic about the initiative, but cautions that it could take several years to complete the process since federal funding is involved. “When U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda came to Molokaʻi in May for her Town Hall, Councilmember Johnson spoke to her about the idea and she sounded supportive. If we can secure some federal funding I think there’s support to move forward.”

Photo: Mokulele Airlines
Passengers bound for Molokaʻi board one of Mokulele’s nine-seater Cessnas at the Honolulu Airport. – Photo: Mokulele Airlines

The current situation for those traveling to and from Molokaʻi is not ideal, and the relationship between Mokulele Air and the Molokaʻi community has been tested many times – and no doubt will continue to be tested. Still, despite their frustration, most people are realistic about the fact that Mokulele hasn’t refused to service their island like other air carriers.

“It’s a hard line to walk to criticize them, but at the same time, be grateful that they’re even flying to Molokaʻi. No one else is. Honestly, I don’t know what government would do if Mokulele said, ‘we’re not going to fly to Molokaʻi anymore.’ What would happen? I don’t know,” Rawlins-Fernandez said.

“I think, as a community, Molokaʻi, is super thankful that we still have airline service,” reflected Mowat. “Because you know, if Mokulele Airlines disappears then what will we do? I gotta sometimes remind people, hey, you guys are paying good money. And this is a service. And these guys are making money off of our community, and so it’s okay to bring up your gripes sometimes, so that things can get fixed.”