Hawaii lawmakers have proposed cutting three high-ranking airport employees in a move that transportation officials have said could “cripple and obstruct” state-run airports.

The proposed cuts come at a critical time for the state Department of Transportation with the return of tourism and increased air traffic. A new administration will also be taking the reins of state government in December, and some employees have called for continuity in positions that manage airports.

The three position cuts first came up in the Senate’s draft of the budget in April. They include the airports administrator, who oversees state airports much like a CEO would oversee a corporation; the administrative services officer, who manages the airport division’s finances; and the visitor information program officer, who helps manage the flow of passengers through security checkpoints.

Daniel K. Inouye International Airport newly constructed part of Terminal 1. Gates A1-A12 are in this side of the airport.
Proposed cuts in the state Department of Transportation could hamper operations at state airports. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Those positions have not been filled permanently for years, but employees have worked in those roles temporarily.

State transportation officials have been asking lawmakers for more than a month to keep the positions and their sources of funding. The three positions are funded by revenue from airlines and concession fees and not state tax dollars.

The Legislature approved the cuts in the final draft of House Bill 1600 on May 3. However, details of the budget, including the cuts at the DOT, were not available until May 19, two weeks after lawmakers adjourned the 2022 session.

“Deleting the positions will leave the programs and the division without leadership, accountability, and continuity as (the) administration changes,” the DOT wrote in response to the Senate draft of the budget.

Chief among the positions is the airports administrator. District managers for the airports on each island report to the administrator, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the airports.

The pandemic has added to the DOT’s responsibilities — including health screenings, gate management and providing relief to airport concessionaires — on top of handling new construction projects. Those duties have been spread around to various employees.

“However, such a solution is untenable,” the department wrote in arguing for the retention of the administrator. “What has been absent from the Airports Division is the accountability of personnel and management of personnel and projects at the airports.”

The role is currently filled by Davis Yogi, who previously ran the state harbors division.

Also on the chopping block is the DOT’s administrative services officer, who oversees the airports’ $307 million operating budget and millions of dollars spent on construction projects. The role involves dealing with grants, financial audits and bond payments.

Details of the DOT position cuts did not become public until May 19, two weeks after the session ended. 

The finance officer and airports administrator also sit on the Airlines Committee of Hawaii and help to coordinate relations between air carriers that operate in the islands. For example, the officials would help decide which gates each airline can use.

If those two positions are cut, their duties would fall to the DOT director and deputy director, who are political appointees of the governor. There’s also concern that cutting those employees could affect the department’s bond rating and its ability to finance future projects.

DOT officials reiterated their concerns with the budget in a “comments and recommendation” letter to the governor on May 19.

The roles of the airports administrator and finance officer were previously filled by Ford Fuchigami, a former transportation director who worked in the governor’s office before moving back to the DOT in May 2019, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Fuchigami left his post at the DOT in January to work for the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which makes decisions on the budget.

Fuchigami couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said that he had lingering concerns about the department, specifically its procurement practices and security issues that were brought up in a January budget hearing.

“I’m hoping that the next administration can solve some of these issues,” Dela Cruz said. “We would consider reinstating some of these positions to make sure long-term airport issues are addressed.”

Dela Cruz said that permanent employees have not filled the cut positions for years. The administrator position is currently filled, but only through the end of the year.

Gov. David Ige did not comment directly on the cuts. A spokeswoman said bills that cleared the Legislature are still undergoing legal, policy and departmental reviews, and that the governor would comment once those reviews are completed.

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