WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele is benefiting from a unique arrangement with Hawaiian Airlines that has allowed him to work and earn income as a part-time pilot while also serving in Congress.
Contract documents and other internal records obtained by Civil Beat show Kahele has been on a specialized leave of absence that was designed for Hawaiian Airlines pilots who have been appointed or elected to state or federal office or who hold a position within a government agency that is “directly connected with aviation.”
Kahele, however, seems to be the only person within the company who qualifies for the benefit.
After Kahele was elected to Congress in November 2020, Hawaiian Airlines and the Air Line Pilots Association, which is the national labor union that represents the company’s pilots, crafted a new leave policy that would allow the first-term congressman to maintain his flight status, seniority and longevity with the company while he represented Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District in Washington.
The addendum was approved by Hawaiian Airlines and ALPA officials on Jan. 19, 2021 with an effective date of Jan. 1, 2021, which was two days before Kahele was sworn in to office.
For some within the company, several of whom spoke with Civil Beat only if they were not identified because they fear retaliation, the new policy felt like special treatment for someone who could help the company’s bottom line.
They said they also worried that other pilots would not be afforded the same opportunities.
“Hawaiian Airlines is not going to kill the goose that’s going to lay the golden egg for them,” one of the employees said. “The Air Line Pilots Association is not going to do that either.”
Kahele’s employment with Hawaiian Airlines has come under increased scrutiny in recent days after Civil Beat reported that Kahele had all but stopped showing up for in-person work in Washington while also still flying for the company.
Kahele has said he is seriously considering running for governor instead of reelection to Congress this year and plans to make an announcement early next month.
House ethics rules limit the amount of outside income a member of Congress can earn. There’s also a potential conflict of interest when Kahele acts on legislation that ultimately benefits his employer.
On Thursday, Kris Tanahara, managing director of corporate communications for Hawaiian Airlines, said in an emailed statement that after Kahele was elected, the company “worked to understand the laws relating to Congressman Kahele’s interest in maintaining his currency as a pilot while adhering to his compliance obligations as an elected official.”
“The agreement that is currently in place covers all pilots, allowing them to meet their civic duties and employment responsibilities in accordance with established ethics rules,” Tanahara said.
The agreement itself states that Hawaiian Airlines and the ALPA “benefit from each pilot being a good citizen and steward of his or her country, state, and community, and actively participating in and contributing to efforts that improve them, especially those benefiting the aviation industry or profession.”
Tanahara would not say how many pilots besides Kahele have qualified for leave under the new agreement, describing that figure as confidential personnel information.
ALPA refused to comment on the new carve out for elected officials in the Hawaiian Airlines contract. The organization instead issued a written statement that praised Kahele as “a strong advocate for aviation safety, frontline workers and those who helped us through the pandemic.”
Kahele started working for Hawaiian Airlines in 2009 and as a pilot elected to Congress he understood the complex needs of the aviation industry, especially during a global pandemic that all but shut down air transportation to the islands and resulted in furloughs for many Hawaiian Airline’s employees.
Kahele sits on two House committees — Armed Services and Transportation and Infrastructure — that oversee legislation that Hawaiian Airlines has had a direct interest in and seeks to influence through the efforts of its lobbyist. Kahele was even a co-sponsor of some of the bills that went before those committees.
Hawaiian Airlines backed Kahele’s campaign for Congress, donating thousands of dollars to him through its political action committee. ALPA also donated thousands of dollars.
ALPA openly boasts of Kahele’s elected position on its website, noting that he’s “the only fully qualified airline pilot currently sitting in Congress,” and that he helped infuse $15 billion into the industry when he voted for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
In the union website article, Kahele, too, discussed his dual roles and how he was able to use his job as a pilot to help his campaign.
“I would bid the five-day Boston trips,” Kahele said. “It worked out perfectly. I would leave Monday and land on Tuesday morning, then go straight to D.C. I could take off my pilot uniform and put on my campaign uniform, then rejoin the crew for the flight home on Friday morning.”
Kahele has refused to talk to Civil Beat in recent days about his employment with Hawaiian Airlines or his nearly four-month absence from Washington, which coincides with his sudden interest in running for governor. His congressional communications directors, Michael Ahn in Washington and Roz Makaula in Hawaii, have refused to respond to emails, phone calls and text messages from Civil Beat.
In a written statement to CNN on Wednesday, Kahele’s office said he earned $29,151.79 while flying for Hawaiian Airlines in 2021 and $2,861.90 so far in 2022 for flying 14.2 hours.
According to House ethics rules, a member of Congress cannot earn more than $29,895 from an outside employer.
Kahele’s financial disclosure statement from 2020 — the most recent that he’s filed — shows he also earned between $30,000 and $90,000 from several rental properties in Tennessee, but that income does not count against the limit.
Kahele’s office defended his time away from Washington, telling CNN that he lives in a multi-generational family household in Hawaii and is worried about new coronavirus variants.
That same day the congressman posted a video on Facebook in which he was maskless in an airport playing a ukulele as he waited to catch a flight to Kauai where he then met with dozens of community members and posed for photos with his constituents, including groups of high school students.
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