For a third year in a row, Hawaii’s airline and tourism leaders, backed by state transportation officials, are lobbying for more control over the islands’ 15 public airports.

They look to fix what one Hawaiian Airlines official recently called Hawaii’s “antiquated and stressful airport experience.”

Key to that effort, they argue, would be a new corporation run by industry officials. The group would be equipped with its own procurement process that’s different from the state’s. It would be more streamlined, allowing airport officials to make upgrades and repairs more quickly, they say.

A proposed independent airport corporation would run the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport and 14 other public airports around the state. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

“It’s critical. It’s very critical to our success,” Ford Fuchigami, the administrative director to Gov. David Ige, told lawmakers at the State Capitol Wednesday.

If the corporation doesn’t have its own procurement process, “to be honest with you, all I’ve done is created another layer in the process,” said Fuchigami. (He previously led the state’s Airports Division and the Department of Transportation.)

That didn’t sway the House Transportation Committee, however, as it considered the latest measure that aims to shift oversight of the state’s airports from DOT to an airport corporation.

Senate Bill 666 passed out of the committee, but not before the members voted unanimously to hold the corporation subject to the state procurement code “during the transition and thereafter.”

Rep. Henry Aquino, who chairs the Transportation Committee, said afterwards that they were reluctant to relinquish that much public oversight at the airports — a $400 million annual operation that’s covered by airline and concession fees.

Lawmakers could always reconsider giving the airport corporation more leeway and flexibility in future sessions, Aquino added. In the meantime, the state code does offer different procurement process options, he said.

That echoes previous comments by the state’s chief procurement officer, Sarah Allen. Last year, she told lawmakers that she “absolutely (does) think there’s flexibility” in the state’s existing code but a lot of state officials simply don’t know how to use it to their advantage.

Hawaiian Airlines Daniel Inouye Airport.
Hawaiian Airlines says independent management of airports is essential so that plans aren’t tied to the legislative budgeting schedule or the changing whims of each administration. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nonetheless, the state’s largest airport user — and one of Hawaii’s largest employers — insists it needs an independent process to manage the airport that isn’t tied to the state’s Legislative schedule or the whims of the latest administration in power.

“Our kamaaina (local) and malihini (visitor) travelers begin and end their vacations with an antiquated and stressful airport experience,” Blaine Miyasato, Hawaiian Airline’s Vice President for Customer Service, said in written testimony supporting the bill. “We have a long list of upgrades and we have both the budget and will among the user groups to fund them. But the process has failed us, year after year.”

SB 666 next faces joint review by the House Labor and Judiciary committees. If approved there, it moves to the Finance Committee.

Third Time The Charm?

Similar measures to create an airport corporation led by nine of the local industry’s leaders died in each of the previous two legislative sessions’ conference committees, when House and Senate members negotiate last-minute changes to bills behind closed doors.

This year marks the first time that Unite Here Local 5, the local union representing hotel and hospitality industry workers in Hawaii, has formally weighed in on the idea. So far, it opposes the measure as proposed on behalf of the 900 concession and in-flight catering workers it represents at the state’s airports.

The union is calling on lawmakers to require that the airports’ non-airline businesses agree to try and avoid labor disputes, set  living wage standards, and provide assurances that workers can stay employed even as those businesses change ownership.

“We believe the airport workers right now, some of them are the most underpaid workers in our state,” Ben Sadowski, a Local 5 representative, told the House committee.

Local 5, which represents hotel and hospitality industry workers, has so far opposed the airport corporation bill, in part because it doesn’t lift policies restricting freedom of speech and protests at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The union further calls for the measure to lift policies that restrict freedom of speech at the airport. The move follows a January 2017 demonstration against President Donald Trump’s immigration ban, a policy that targeted predominantly Muslim countries.

During that airport demonstration, security initially attempted to remove a protestor holding a “Fuck Trump” poster before lawyers on the scene intervened, Local 5 spokeswoman Paola Rodelas recalled.

Local 5’s written testimony on SB 666 states: “Especially in Hawaii’s tourist environment, it is important to show the world that we have Aloha for people from all cultures. Limiting free speech in the Trump era is the same as complicity in bigotry and racism.”

“The airport is a big public asset, and the jobs that the airport provides – we want to make sure these workers are protected and retained,” Rodelas added Wednesday.

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