Last week, after watching his 12-year-old daughter perform in a Florida beauty pageant, Joseph Howe and his family of four drove to Orlando International Airport to begin the long journey back to their Molokai home.

molokai locator badgeSuddenly, an alert appeared on Howe’s phone: Three-hour flight delay. The family was going to miss their final connection — a 36-minute flight from Honolulu to Molokai.

Making an already bad situation worse, all of Mokulele Airlines’ flights on that route over the next two days were full.

And since Mokulele is the only air carrier servicing Molokai, the Howe family was staring down the prospect of an overnight layover in Honolulu — and a slew of unforeseen expenses: Taxi rides. A hotel room. Meals for four.

On his cell phone, Howe tapped out the details of his customer-service debacle in an email and sent it to Mokulele’s Richard Schuman, the Molokai-born airline executive known for giving out his email address and cell phone number to passengers in case they ever find themselves in the throes of a travel emergency.

“I just took a longshot,” Howe said. “I was kind of stressing out the whole way to Honolulu.”

While the Howe family was in the air, Schuman arranged a fix. By delaying a Molokai-bound flight, and rerouting another, the airline was able to fly the Howes to Hoolehua Airport within a couple hours of their originally scheduled arrival.

Mokulele Airlines Executive Vice President Richard Schuman in their Saab aircraft at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Mokulele Airlines Executive Vice President Richard Schuman said his customer service philosophy is informed by the fact that residents of Hawaii’s more rural islands often need to travel to make a living or to seek medical care. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

This scenario is not an outlier. As Mokulele’s executive vice president, Schuman says he fields calls from distressed travelers almost daily — a task far outside the bounds of his job description. He counts on one hand the number of times in the last two years that he wasn’t able to “make a flight appear” to resolve a legitimate travel problem.

On an island where air travel is required for many residents to reach jobs and doctors, Schuman’s unusual accessibility has for some people quite literally been a life saver.

Here’s a typical scenario: A Molokai resident develops an urgent health issue and gets flown by medevac to Oahu. The patient’s spouse checks the Mokulele flight schedule to find that all the flights to Honolulu are booked solid that day. So they call Schuman, who posts his contact information freely on social media.

Schuman will typically try to locate a plane traveling to Honolulu from Lanai or Kahului, Maui. If he finds one with an empty seat available, he’ll reroute it to Molokai to pick up an additional passenger before continuing to Honolulu.

Like any airline, Mokulele has a customer service department. But Schuman wants residents in crisis to be able to reach him when time-sensitive, unforeseen problems arise.

Two airlines — Makani Kai and Ohana by Hawaiian — ceased operations during the pandemic, making Mokulele Airlines the only air carrier servicing Molokai residents. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

The airline wouldn’t be able to divert aircraft with such relative ease if its fleet resembled the much larger 100-plus passenger planes operated by Hawaiian Airlines and Southwest Airlines for interisland travel, Schuman said. By contrast, Mokulele’s fleet of nine-passenger planes allows for greater flexibility.

Other Hawaii residents also benefit.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Schuman got a call from a Lanai resident who said he’d just received notice from The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu that his father, a patient, was not expected to live through the night. But there were no seats available on any of Mokulele’s regularly scheduled Honolulu-bound planes.

So Schuman diverted a plane to pick up the late-addition Lanai passenger, delivering him to Honolulu in time to reunite with his father one last time. Schuman said the man’s father died the next day.

“We know this costs us time and fuel,” Schuman said. “And it causes travel delays for the passengers who are on that plane that’s getting diverted. But we explain why, that there’s a family medical emergency, and there hasn’t been one customer that’s complained about it.”

If Schuman hasn’t received any direct complaints, they do exist on the internet.

As declared in a recent one-star Yelp review, “They are always cancelling and rescheduling with no advanced notice (we don’t consider an email at 2 a.m. giving us notice for a 6 a.m. flight!).”

Schuman, however, is unmoved.

“What if your father was going to pass away in 24 hours and you called up the airline and they said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry we can’t help you,’ and because of some big corporation mentality you weren’t able to say goodbye?” he said. “When there’s an emergency or an important situation like that, it’s like, go whine if you want. Personally, we’re going to try to help.”

Mokulele Airlines Saab aircraft at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Mokulele Airlines debuted a 28-passenger Saab aircraft this month at Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The airline is not without other criticism. On social media, residents complain about the 300-pound passenger weight limit and the airline’s inability to transport some wheelchair-bound passengers — limitations caused by the small size of the company’s planes.

In an effort to address these issues, Mokulele this month introduced a 28-passenger plane to its fleet. The company is also growing its fleet of smaller planes, from six aircraft before the pandemic started to 15 aircraft today.

But Schuman acknowledges that the airline still has a long way to go to catch up with travel demand created by the loss of service by Ohana by Hawaiian.

“People say, ‘I can’t fly in your small planes, I’m claustrophobic,’ or ‘I wish Ohana was still flying,’” Schuman said. “Well, frankly, we do, too. Because it leaves us struggling to take care of people.”

At 64, Schuman is the product of a long line of enterprising businessmen in the transportation industry dating back to the Hawaiian Kingdom.

In 1880, Schuman’s great-grandfather immigrated to Hawaii from Germany at age 16 to craft wooden wheels for horse-drawn carriages owned by sugar and pineapple plantation companies. He and his older brother started Schuman Carriage Co. in 1983, developing a network of Oahu car dealerships, the last of which closed its doors in 2004.

Schuman worked on and off in the auto industry when his father held the reins of the family business for 15 years. Then he broke away to launch his own aviation company.

“Grandma, grandpa, their kids, their grandkids. That’s my market so I make myself available to them.” — Richard Schuman, Mokulele Airlines

Founded in 1998, Makani Kai Air adopted the “magic formula” that Schuman credits for the success of Schuman Carriage: “Take care of your customers — period,” he said.

As Makani Kai’s president and CEO, Schuman gave his email and cell phone number out to customers regularly. He says he’s answered it at all hours of the night and day, but he underscores that the people of Molokai rarely abused the privilege.

In June 2020, Makani Kai merged with Mokulele Airlines, a commuter airline operating in Hawaii under the umbrella of the Florida-based Southern Airways Express. Schuman described the merger as a product of the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. And he said Southern Airways CEO Stan Little has embraced his customer service philosophy.

“I care less about the tourists or the travelers that come (to Molokai) occasionally,” Schuman said. “I just focus in on the core 7,700 or so residents of Molokai — grandma, grandpa, their kids, their grandkids. That’s my market so I make myself available to them.”

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