There’s a particular joy in stepping off an airplane in Honolulu and sucking in the sweet island air. The combination of embracing warmth with a touch of moisture and a hint of flowers can intoxicate the most cynical traveler. For those of us lucky enough to live here, it’s an unmistakable welcome home with aloha.

But let’s be honest; warm trade breezes aside, we have some trouble at the airport, and visitors are taking note.

Yelp has become the default reality check for many business owners, providing a constant flow of customer feedback and an occasional source for actionable suggestions. With an overall rating of three stars out of five through more than 1,000 reviews, the Honolulu Airport’s Yelp rating is actually a relative highlight in the world of traveler reaction.

Honolulu Int'l Airport

Since Honolulu probably won’t be making major improvements to its airport anytime soon, it should focus on little things that might make it compare more favorably to Asian airports.

The airport customer reviews compiled by the company Skytrax are a bit harsher. The overall score of 42 reviews averages out to five out of a possible 10, which would equate to a failing grade in most educational institutions.

Both sites come with some caustic remarks, such as complaints about shuttle buses and distances. Then there’s the observation from an Australian visitor that because of everything from a lack of power outlets to a paucity of food choices, “employees are nice, but it makes me feel as if it’s 1955.”

And there’s the survey from this past fall that rated Honolulu the third-worst airport in North America. According to those who tallied up their preferences on the website, only New York’s LaGuardia and LAX score worse.

One frequent complaint is a lack of free wireless internet access. Right now, two hours of wireless access at the Honolulu Airport will cost you $6.95, and 24 hours will run you $8.95.

The state Department of Transportation plans to pursue free wireless access, although that may require the installation of a pricey new antenna to handle the anticipated demand. Still, state officials have said they may be in a position to deliver that by way of an independent contractor by the end of this year.      

But the issues at the airport go deeper than wireless connections. While we’re on the topic of hanging around the airport, here’s a question: Why is it impossible to get a lomi lomi massage somewhere among the gates and the newsstands?

The airport is both the initial and the final Hawaii experience for the overwhelming majority of visitors to the state. And in a world of increasing international competition for travel dollars, yen and renminbi, the Honolulu Airport is a critical part of Brand Hawaii.

This is a simple question, but it’s an important one because it’s not only a potential business opportunity with a cultural aspect attached to it, but it’s symptomatic of a broader and more alarming behavior: taking visitors for granted.

This small but achievable upgrade could yield surprising dividends of goodwill. For travelers coming from Asia, the airport comparison is already bound to make Honolulu look bad.

If you have a layover in Singapore, you can watch movies at one of the facility’s two theaters. If your time between flights is long enough, you can take a two-hour tour bus tour of the city. For free.

At South Korea’s Incheon Airport, you can also see movies at a theater. And the filmed entertainment includes introductions to various aspects of Korean culture. There’s also a sauna and spa, and a skating rink.

In Japan, Haneda’s expanded international terminal includes services ranging from dry cleaning to a medical clinic, not to mention a shower room, conference facilities and a special play area for children.

And while the aging facilities at Narita International Airport are still a much longer distance from Tokyo’s city center, the services on offer have been improved in recent years. They include dry cleaning, a pet hotel, a barber shop, and even an oxygen bar.

Each of these airports also features free wi-fi connections, and has done so for some time now.

airport lei sellers

A proper welcome to Hawaii takes more than a good assortment of leis.

Denby Fawcett

Every airport mentioned above also features massage services. Of course, these are not free, but they certainly are heavily utilized.

The Honolulu Airport is not without its charms. There is hula in the central lobby of the main terminal, and you can go to a barber/beauty shop as well, not to mention the Space Museum. And the folks at Dole long ago figured out the best way to get fresh pineapples into the carry-on baggage of departing passengers.

One of the most attractive features of the Honolulu Airport doesn’t get a lot of publicity, and some international travelers may not even be aware of its existence: The Cultural Gardens. There are Chinese, Hawaiian and Japanese gardens that were laid out by landscape architect Richard C. Tonng as part of the design of the airport when it was built in 1962.

But despite these positives, the airport gives the overall impression of being, to be kind, a bit dated. The fact is that the airport is both the initial and the final Hawaii experience for the overwhelming majority of visitors to the state.  And in a world of increasing international competition for travel dollars, yen and renminbi, the Honolulu Airport is a critical part of Brand Hawaii.

No one’s looking for a skating rink or a movie theater at the Honolulu Airport. But a little lomi lomi before a long flight would be a nice touch in more ways than one.

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About the Author

  • Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman is News Director at Hawaii Public Radio. He lived and worked in Asia for 10 years, covering stories from more than a dozen countries and territories for CNN and Bloomberg News. His broadcast experience also includes work in New York and Washington, D.C. His “Asia Minute” feature can be heard weekday mornings on HPR.