Ross Higashi knows all about the generally sketchy reputation of Honolulu’s airport.
The head of the state’s Airports Division even acknowledges that Hawaii would probably be better off if its airports were managed by a private authority, like most others around the country.
But that’s not how it works in the islands, and Higashi wants you to know that all is not woe at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, which is in the midst of a modernization project that he says will lead to an open, safe, efficient and even pleasant facility.
That means clean restrooms, lots of food and retail options, room to stretch and walk around, places to relax before and between flights, clear signage and easy access to rental cars and public transportation.
In the view of Higashi, a 30-year employee with the Hawaii Department of Transportation who is today deputy director, much of that vision could be reality as soon as 2021.
“When you walk around today, you see a lot changes and, over the last four years, this administration — I am not bragging in any way, we are very humble — we have gotten a lot of things done within the last four years,” said Higashi. “It’s just a lot of physical change to this airport. This has been going on for the last 10 years.”
Higashi is clearly proud of his work, and he’s a good salesman for it.
After taking a recent tour of the airport, I agree that there have been a lot of improvements. But there is much work to be done.
Wooden barricades line some terminal corridors, attempting to hide scaffolding. Some restrooms and drinking fountains are often marked with those yellow cones that read “Wet Floor” (or “Piso Mojado,” in Spanish). There are chipped floor tiles, exposed wiring and cracks in ceiling panels.
And more: Temporary signs printed on paper and taped to walls attempt to offer direction. Giant fans fail to cool snaking TSA lines that lack AC. The Wiki-Wiki shuttle is creaky and spews diesel. (The plan is to replace the shuttles with electrified vehicles or ones run by compressed natural gas.)
“Aloha. Please pardon the inconvenience,” posted yellow notices read. “Menehune at work!”
For the average passenger who is not aware of the airport’s $3.2 billion modernization plan, part of the facility can seem a bit of a mess. HNL, which sees 20 million passengers annually, may appear in perpetual stasis, in contrast to state-of-the-art airports in many U.S. and international cities.
Honolulu’s airport has arguably not looked new since the 1970s and early 1980s, which saw the completion of the three-level international arrivals terminal, the opening of the Diamond Head, Ewa and Central concourses, and the opening of the 12,000-foot reef runway — the first major runway built entirely offshore anywhere in the world.
Today, the airport employs some 23,000 employees, has more than 300,000 aircraft operations a year and serves 25 airlines flying to and from the neighbor islands, the mainland and internationally. But the first and last place that most tourists to the islands see is not a popular destination.
A report by J.D. Power, the market research company, in September ranked Honolulu’s airport No. 22 out of 25 large airports, based on customer satisfaction.
John Wayne Airport in Orange County was No. 1 followed by Dallas Love Field and Portland (Oregon) International Airport.
Dissatisfaction with HNL comes from both airline executives and consumers.
Last year, Hawaiian Airlines’ then-CEO Mark Dunkerley, complained about the slow pace of the airport’s modernization project, which dates to 2006, when Linda Lingle was governor.
Ross Higashi points to a number of accomplishments completed or well underway, including:
“Other communities have found ways to update its infrastructure in a fraction of the time,” he told Pacific Business News. “Hoover Dam took five years to build. The Coliseum in Rome took eight years to build, and The Parthenon took nine years to build.”
Dunkerley called the modernization “a high priority to develop the infrastructure, which is so important to our state and the state’s economy.”
Higashi is quite aware of the complaints, but rather than get defensive he offers perspective. He notes that the last time HNL had major work was in the early 1990s, when Terminal 1 was constructed. Higashi’s office at the DOT Airports Division is on the top floor.
The modernization plan was hampered by the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. Two administrations followed Lingle’s. And a major challenge to renovating any airport is that it must be done in phases.
“It’s a 24/7 operation. You cannot just shut the whole airport down,” said Higashi. “We have to do it incrementally or phased through the process. There are plans and ways that we work around it — night shifts, closing down certain gates one at a time — because between 10 and 2 every day this airport is operating at full capacity.”
Higashi is looking to the future, including the completion of the Mauka Concourse — the first major concourse expansion in over 20 years. It’s located between Terminal 1 and Nimitz Highway, where columns for Honolulu rail have already been built and where the station is to be located a short walk from the lei stands (which will remain in their longtime location in front of Aolele Street).
“Within the next two years, I’m very excited to see all these barricades come down and everything start to become operational,” said Higashi. “And then let’s see what the public has to say about what we’ve got done in the last four years — or by then, six years.”
HNL is a self-sustaining operation that receives no general funds from the state.
Its current operating budget of approximately $430 million is funded by $180 million in concession revenues mainly from car rentals, DFS Hawaii (Duty Free), AMPCO (parking) and HMS Host (food and beverage), $220 million from airlines (landing fees and terminal rentals) and $30 million from other non-airline revenues.
Honolulu’s airport is one of only three major airports nationally not run by a private authority or corporation. The others are in Alaska and Maryland.
Budget appropriations must be approved by the Hawaii Legislature, which meets just four months out of the year. Projects must also go through the state procurement process, which takes time. Many awards are to the lowest bidders.
“You and I know in life that low bid is not always going to get you the best project,” said Higashi.
Contrast that with the private sector, where an airport authority could choose to work with preferred contractors who are, as Higashi put it, successful in competing for projects that are “on time and on budget.”
If airport operations were run by a private entity, officials believe, the airport would be able to act much faster on capital improvements. Higashi gave the example of the double-decker A380s that All Nippon Airways plans to fly from Tokyo to Honolulu next year.
The planes, which hold 520 passengers — more than double the capacity of most other aircraft — require a different configuration at Gates C4 and C9. The DOT had to wait for approval from the Legislature rather than go to an airport authority board to expedite the projects.
The DOT under the Ige administration has unsuccessfully lobbied to transfer control of Hawaii’s 15 airports to a fiscally autonomous private authority or corporation.
“The airport authority would have been exempt from state procurement procedures, controlling how its budget is implemented, and lawmakers expressed concerns about letting go of the purse strings,” Travel Weekly reported in May, when the most recent bill died in the final days of the 2018 legislative session despite having garnered broad support from lawmakers. “Some labor organizations have also testified against the bill, arguing the procurement procedures are in place to protect Hawaiian interests.”
State Sen. Lorraine Inouye, one of the bill’s co-introducers, said “politics got in the way of progress,” the Hawaii Tribune Herald reported in May.
Higashi said airport corporation legislation would be introduced in the 2019 Legislature, which meets beginning in January.
“For us to get things moving sooner than later, to compete with other airports nationwide, we have got to get more capital projects sooner than later,” he said. “The process of going through an appropriation and allotment and procurement and so forth, is very time-consuming. We need to operate just like the private sector.”
As Tim Sakahara of the DOT’s Public Affairs Office explained it, “Even though we raise our own revenue and we operate like a business, we are not able to operate like a business in the control aspect of it. We generate our own money, but we still have to go to the Legislature to spend it.”
For now, HNL continues with its modernization. In July, Gov. David Ige announced plans for a new, $1.1 billion Diamond Head Concourse to be completed around 2025.
The 800,000-square-foot facility, according to a press release, will replace the existing building, expand the gates from 10 to 21, have a new Customs and Border Protection facility and “an improved security screening checkpoint and baggage screening facilities” for TSA.
Of course, construction will also mean more inconvenience for passengers, and more complaints. But at least they’ll have something to do to bide their time.
For example, there are no less than 11 Starbucks at HNL to choose from.
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