In 2016, representatives of the Tokyo-based All Nippon Airways ‚ Japan’s largest airline — met with the head of Hawaii’s airports division, Ross Higashi, to propose passenger service via its double-decker Airbus A380 planes to the islands.

The move could mean hundreds more visitors — and their dollars — landing daily from Japan. But it would also require about $15 million in upgrades to two loading bridges plus other fixes at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

“I’m not going to tell them ‘no,'” Higashi said of that exchange two years ago with ANA officials. The problem, as he explained it Friday, was that their meeting took place in March after the state Department of Transportation’s budget had already been set. The earliest he could try to get the funds would be July 2017, he said.

That’s the sort of airport logistical problem that some people want to fix.

Honolulu Airport wet floor leaky roof arrival. 6 dec 2016
A proposal to put Hawaii’s airports in control of a governing corporation might finally pass in the Legislature this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For several years, local airline industry officials have been looking to take more control over the Honolulu airport — a $400 million annual operation that’s covered by airline and concession fees — from the DOT. They aim to create a new nine-member airport corporation that’s bound neither to the state’s legislative budget cycle nor its procurement process.

The idea is to more swiftly respond to issues such as the ANA proposal as they arise.

“Airlines are raring to go, to get the projects off the ground sooner than later in order for us to be competitive internationally,” Higashi told legislators Friday. “Truly, I feel there must be a better way for us to get projects off the ground, get services quicker, and expedite the whole process a lot faster.”

Critics of the idea say it would create an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that makes it harder for the public to keep tabs on the airport. They say there’s no reason the DOT can’t handle management of the airport.

“If there are problems with the procurement code then we should fix the procurement code,” Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said Friday. “I’m not sure this will be the answer.”

Many of the issues that Hawaiian Airlines faced in building its new maintenance and cargo hangar, she said, were due to inadequate oversight by DOT-hired consultants that had nothing to do with the state’s procurement process.

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim gestures during Ways and Means meeting while questioning Mayor Kirk Caldwell. 4 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim doesn’t think a new corporation will make conditions better at Hawaii’s airports. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kim instead proposes making the Airports Division a stand-alone agency outside of DOT. She was one of just two senators earlier this month to vote against the latest corporation bill, along with Sen. Brian Taniguchi. Senate Bill 2996  cruised through that chamber and two House committees reviewed it Friday. Those committees, Transportation and Labor and Public Employment, are scheduled to decide Wednesday whether to advance the measure.

Despite strong support from state leaders and local industry players, the proposal has died the past two years in the Legislature’s pivotal, end-of-session conference committees.

Gov. David Ige’s administration supported forming the airport corporation last year, but the state Attorney General’s office and Budget and Finance Department had “major problems” with Senate Bill 658’s language, so legislative leaders opted not to pass it, according to House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke.

“It would be pretty embarrassing if they end up vetoing their own administration’s bill,” Luke said in January. “It was really a shock to us when we were in the middle of conference” and those departments flagged problems with the measure. The Legislature opted to give them another year to sort things out.

On Friday, Deputy Attorney General Charleen Aina testified that she and her office colleagues would like to see a three-year transition period to give enough time to set up the airport corporation, based on what they’ve encountered in the state’s recent transfer of control of three public hospitals on Maui to Kaiser Permanente Hawaii. The proposed 18-month transfer would be “ambitious,” she said.

After the hearing, Aina said that her office had concerns whether it could have enforced last year’s measure.

In the current bill’s latest draft, the governor would appoint the corporation’s members to four-year terms, and each of the state’s four counties would have at least one of their residents sit on the board. The board would then be able to create its own procurement policies and procedures that diverge from the state’s, but those policies would be available for public review.

It’s not just the Honolulu airport that faces challenges. Hilo International Airport may have missed out on free replacement hangars from California to replace that airport’s dilapidated hangars because the DOT couldn’t acquire them fast enough under the procurement code, officials said Friday.

Honolulu International Airport JAL Hawaiian Airlines . 9 jan 2017
Airlines that operate at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport support creating a new governing corporation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sarah Allen, the state’s procurement officer, said she wasn’t familiar with the Hilo case, but that the code may have allowed the acquisition of the hangars.

Allen told lawmakers that she “absolutely (does) think there’s flexibility” in the state’s existing code but that a lot of state officials simply don’t know how to use it to their advantage.

“There are multiple ways to access and to procure what you’re looking for,” she said.

She acknowledged that the required 30-day period to solicit bidders may not be flexible “but we also have to consider the community and the vendors who support us, and we have to make sure that they have an opportune time to compete.”

Hawaii, Maryland and Alaska are the only three states in the country to manage their public airports, according to Higashi.

The Honolulu airport did eventually secure ANA’s Airbus A380 service despite the delays, he added. Those flights from Japan should start in March 2019 — using two new loading bridges at Gates 29 and 34.

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