Molokai and Lanai residents are lamenting what’s now the permanent loss of Hawaiian Airlines’ Ohana By Hawaiian service to those islands.

The cuts, they say, will limit travel options and make it more difficult to fly to the other islands, especially for the local kupuna and disabled passengers who travel for medical care outside of those rural areas.

“It discourages a lot of people from traveling. A lot of the people here are very upset,” said Michael “Mikee” Gomes.

The native of Molokai helped lead a petition drive to reinstate the Ohana service after Hawaiian suspended it Jan. 14 amid the steep decline in interisland travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Passengers walk up ramp to board a Hawaiian Airlines flight bound to Honolulu.
Hawaiian Airlines announced Thursday that it’s permanently shutting down its ‘Ohana by Hawaiian service that many residents on Molokai and Lanai relied on, particularly senior and disabled residents. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Gomes said the petition garnered about 2,000 online and physical signatures, and that he sent it to Hawaiian on March 22. Nonetheless, on Thursday, Hawaiian announced that the suspension would be permanent.

“This is a heartbreaking decision, particularly for those of us who were involved in launching the business in 2014,” Hawaiian Airlines CEO Peter Ingram said in a statement. “We took a hard look at the service and could not identify a way to restart and sustainably operate.”

The move leaves Molokai and Lanai with just one air carrier: Mokulele Airlines, which is operated by Florida-based Southern Airways. Residents on Molokai say Mokulele’s nine-passenger seat planes are harder to access and make it more difficult for seniors, disabled and larger-sized passengers to travel.

“The kupuna here on our island really needed that service … especially for medical care or if they needed to see family members,” Gomes said. “It’s difficult for them in Mokulele’s small aircraft.” 

Mokulele Airlines Interisland terminal.
Mokulele Airlines says it has improved its service in recent months to better accommodate seniors, larger-size passengers and those with disabilities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

However, Mokulele representatives say they’ve addressed at least some of those concerns in recent months. Hawaiian Airlines provided Mokulele with the ramps it used for its ‘Ohana service essentially free of charge, so that passengers who use wheelchairs can enter their planes through a slightly larger door, according to Keith Sisson, Mokulele’s chief of staff.

Larger-sized passengers can now alert Mokulele in advance so the carrier can outfit their flight with a special bench seat, Sisson added. Mokulele is also adding four new planes to its existing fleet of 13 in the coming months, Sisson said. That includes a 19-passenger seat Beechcraft 1900 slated to arrive in September that will operate as a Southern Airways flight so passengers who want the bigger plane can book it, he said.

Still, Gomes said local residents have been frustrated by Mokulele’s service. The carrier only has one wheelchair available to passengers and on April 13 a passenger had to walk to their flight because it was already in use, he said.

In response, Sisson said there was only one such incident out of Mokulele’s hundreds of flights in the past six months, and so it was “highly irregular.” Typically it only takes five to 10 minutes to use the wheelchair to board passengers, he said.

In a statement, Rep. Lynne DeCoite said that for years the Ohana service was “the only option for our residents that are in wheelchairs or those needing physical assistance to be able to travel off island.

“While I am grateful that they served our communities for the past six years, even to their economic detriment, I am sad to hear today’s announcement,” she said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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