On my way home from Maui, I came across one of the filthiest airport bathrooms I have seen in a long time.

This was at the interisland section of the Kahului Airport: No toilet paper in dispensers. Trash all over the floor. Trash container overflowing with paper and sanitary napkins. Damp floor. Latch to the stall door broken.

I had to hold the door shut with my hand to prevent women waiting in the line outside from pushing in.

A dirty airport restroom may not seem worthy of any attention, but what I saw in the Kahului Airport is symbolic of the inability of our airports to keep up with the demands of the 8.6 million tourists coming here annually. Not to mention more and more local residents passing through state airport facilities on their own trips.

A stall in a women’s restroom in the interisland section of Kahului Airport. Denby Fawcett

I took a picture of the nasty restroom at Kahului and posted it on Facebook saying, “State of Hawaii, do you care about our image? “

Airport toilets are often the first sight many tourists see when they arrive in Hawaii. But walking into Kahului Airport, they might mistakenly think they have landed in rural Nepal.

Turns out I am not alone in being concerned. My Facebook picture of the trashed restroom immediately sparked dozens of comments from readers about their own unsanitary experiences in public bathrooms at airports and other public bathrooms.

Denise Hayashi Yamaguchi included an airport restroom photo in her comment to me and wrote: “You think that’s bad? This is Honolulu International Airport, interisland terminal. It looks like a crime scene! Plus half the doors don’t work. We have 9 million tourists who vacation here. Why can’t we have decent bathrooms at the airport?”

Yamaguchi is an Oahu resident and CEO of Denise Hayashi Consulting. Her husband is celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi.

A recent scene in a women’s restroom in the interisland section of Honolulu International Airport. Courtesy of Denise Hayashi Yamaguchi

She says she took her restroom photo Dec. 19 at Honolulu International Airport near where Hawaiian Airlines flights leave for Maui.  She says in addition to the “crime scene” bathroom stalls and broken doors, the place smelled bad and there were no paper towels in the holders.

A pilot I know who frequently flies into Kahului Airport told me the male restroom in the interisland terminal is just as dirty as what I described in the Kahului women’s restroom.

The website Guide to Sleeping in Airports in it’s 2016 survey named Kahului Airport one of the 10 worst airports in North America for comfort and cleanliness, citing among other things its “overused and under-cleaned” restrooms.

The Airports Division of the Hawaii Department of Transportation manages all of Hawaii’s airports.

DOT spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige says the restrooms in the interisland section of Kahului Airport are outdated and overused because they were built in 1990 before the current onslaught of Maui-bound passengers. About 12,000 travelers now come through the interisland section of Kahului Airport — the part of the airport where the outdated, often dirty bathrooms are located.    

Kunishige says it is difficult for the staff to keep up with the maintenance at times because the three stalls in the single women’s restroom in the interisland section are almost always full, with lines outside the stalls.

She says the public workers who clean the restrooms keep a schedule of flight arrivals and departures and try to clean between the flights when it won’t inconvenience travelers so much.

Improvements Are Planned, But Are They A Priority?

The Kahului restrooms are supposed to be remodeled and expanded as part of the state’s $2.7 billion airport modernization plan. But the $3 million renovation and expansion work is not scheduled to begin until the fall of 2017 and is not expected to be finished until the spring of 2018.

So far, only the restrooms at Kahului handling flights from the continental U.S. have been renovated, and my pilot friend says they are clean and nicely decorated.

In the state’s website on the airport modernization plan, the Kahului restroom renovations are listed under the category “long term efforts.”

“Some of the facilities may be old, but that doesn’t mean they have to be dirty. They should be kept clean.” — State Sen. Lorraine Inouye

Kunishige says Honolulu International Airport is also scheduled for restroom renovations, with 35 restrooms throughout the airport to be upgraded by late 2018.

Airline executives have been openly critical of the state’s slowness in starting and finishing the planned airport improvements  — both big projects like car rental facilities and smaller ones like restrooms.

The airlines and airport concessionaires finance all the construction costs of the improvements, as well as pay for all the expenses to run Hawaii’s airports.

State Senate Transportation and Energy Committee Chairwoman Lorraine Inouye says this legislative session she will introduce a new version of a bill that failed last session calling for the creation of an independent airport authority to handle the management and and planning for the state’s 15 airports.

She says an independent authority will go a long way toward bringing shabby state airports into the 21st century.

Currently, Hawaii and Alaska are the only states without independent airport authorities

Inouye, who worked in the hotel industry for 21 years, says she is especially disappointed by airport restrooms.

“Some of the facilities may be old, but that doesn’t mean they have to be dirty. They should be kept clean,” she says.

‘Actually An Enterprise’

In an interview with the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, DOT chief Ford Fuchigami said, “What an authority does is it gives the airport system the ability to move things along at a much quicker pace.”

Fuchigami says that since the airports are self-funded by users, they should be run more like businesses, not like other state agencies funded by taxpayers.

The airport is actually an enterprise — we don’t take general fund money or taxpayer dollars,” Fuchigami said. “We run based on revenues generated by airlines and concessionaires.”

“An airport authority will help us unravel the gridlock that holds our airports back from being the convenient, pleasant, world-class transportation hubs we deserve.” — Blaine Miyasato, Hawaiian Airlines

As proposed in the bill last year, the authority would be an eight-member board with the ability to expedite construction projects and to streamline the day-to-day operations.

Hawaiian Airlines executive Blaine Miyasato says “an airport authority will help us unravel the gridlock that holds our airports back from being the convenient, pleasant, world-class transportation hubs we deserve.”

Miyasato is the airline’s representative on the 22-member Airline Committee of Hawaii, which along with the DOT strongly supports the idea of an airport authority.

Kunishige says if the airports were allowed to be run as an enterprise governed by an authority it would speed the process of hiring new employees for critical work such as airport cleaning and repairs.

With the current onerous process of posting and filling job vacancies, the airports are chronically short-staffed.

“An airport authority would streamline the process and reduce the time to back-fill vacancies and would theoretically have a direct and positive impact on the cleanliness and maintenance of important facilities like restrooms at our airports,” Miyasato says.

This certainly seems better than what we have to endure today: out-of-date airports with sometimes trashy restrooms.

As business consultant Yamaguchi puts it: “While we keep stressing how important tourism is to our state, it’s such a shame that one of our visitors’ first experiences here is our unkempt bathrooms.”

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