It’s no secret that the tiny island of Lanai, with its twin luxury resorts, is a magnet for elite travelers, some of whom fly by private jet.

Lanai locator map

But some jets can’t fly nonstop between the 140-square-mile island and the mainland without diverting to another nearby airport — typically Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu — to switch to a smaller aircraft or fill up on fuel. 

That’s because Lanai Airport’s existing 5,000-foot runway isn’t long enough for some heavier jets to land. Others can’t take off with sufficient fuel to reach the West Coast. These jets must take off with light tanks and divert to another Hawaii airport for more fuel. 

So billionaire tech entrepreneur Larry Ellison, who owns 98% of the island, is footing the $5 million bill to expand the runway by 500 feet to allow more aircraft to fly to Lanai nonstop.

Lanai airport. 13 april 2017
In wet conditions, about 40% of the private jets that frequent Lanai Airport cannot land at half passenger capacity without diverting to Honolulu, according to an environmental assessment for the runway extension project prepared by the Hawaii Department of Transportation and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in May 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The project would also increase the margin of safety for other aircraft that use the airport, including the Mokulele Airlines planes that offer the only regular commercial service to Lanai.

“I don’t think anybody can argue against safety,” said Lanai Planning Commission Chairman Reynold “Butch” Gima. “But it seems quite evident that the extension is designed for more private aircraft and overall that’s not necessarily beneficial for the community.”

Construction is expected to begin in March. No public funds will be used for the project, which is being carried out by the Hawaii Department of Transportation. The Federal Aviation Administration signed off on it in May 2019 after an environmental assessment found that in wet conditions, about 40% of the private jets that frequent Lanai Airport cannot land at half passenger capacity without diverting to Honolulu.

Pulama Lanai, the management company that oversees Ellison’s majority stake in the island, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Maui County Councilman Gabe Johnson, who lives on Lanai, acknowledged that the 1940 airport, which has four gates, no control tower and no automatic luggage carousel, needs improvement. But he criticized the runway extension project for its aim to improve the flying experience of elite tourists while offering little benefit to Lanai residents who rely on air travel to access doctors. 

“There’s the millionaires and then there’s us,” Johnson said. “It’s a two-tiered travel system. And I think the overall consensus is that we’re last on the list because it just seems to be that Larry’s needs always come first.” 

Four Seasons Resort Lanai.
In 2015, Larry Ellison, who owns 98% of Lanai, ordered a $75 million renovation of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Most guests of the island’s five-star hotels — the adults-only wellness retreat Sensei Lanai and the oceanfront Four Seasons Resort Lanai, where the cheapest room on a recent Saturday was advertised for $2,307 — fly privately to the island or by way of Ellison’s own Lanai Air, a private air charter service.

Lanai residents, on the other hand, typically fly on Mokulele Airlines, which operates nine-seat commuter flights. Or, if they’re going to Maui, they can take the more affordable public ferry that takes about an hour to traverse the Auau Channel to Lahaina.

“If they elongate the runway, do we get cheaper tickets or do we get more options to fly out of Lanai?” Johnson said. “Because we are flying for doctors appointments, not for tourist activities. I mean, this is an island where women need to fly to give birth. So what do we get out of it?”

Some residents are concerned that the longer runway could lead the airport to become overtaxed. If the improvement entices the arrival of more private jets, will there be enough room for them to park?

The number of airport landings at Lanai Airport increased by more than 120% over the last 10 years, with 4,942 recorded landings in 2012 and 11,005 recorded landings in 2021, according to data from the DOT.

This year there have been 9,591 landings at the airport through the end of October, or an average of more than 30 landings per day. That compares to an average of about 13 daily landings in 2012, the same year that Ellison purchased most of the island for a reported $300 million.

Another consideration: Noise. Some residents have concerns that the runway extension could expand the procession of planes descending on tiny Lanai, adding to the problem of airplane noise. The military uses Lanai for training exercises, which can be especially loud.

“The airplane noise is problematic for Lanai because Lanai is so quiet,” Gima said. “During the night when the military Ospreys are coming in, they are loud. The concern is that this will add to the total number of takeoffs and landings, and the noise that comes with it, at this small airport that has no tower.” 

N903GS private jet Lanai Airport. 13 april 2017
A private jet parked at the 500-acre Lanai Airport. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The project has proponents. Russell DeJetley, a former Lanai Airport supervisor, said the runway extension would improve safety for any aircraft that comes to and from the island. 

“I can certainly see the want to decrease traffic into Lanai from a private jet perspective, but I think personally I would rather have more people being able to come to Lanai safely,” DeJetley said. “I’ve seen crazy things, too, where pilots have used every single foot of that runway to take off and it’s cringy to watch.”

In the event of a natural disaster, a longer runway would make it easier for the military to fly in emergency supplies, he said.

He also noted that putting an end to the need for some private jets to stop for fuel in Honolulu on their way to and from Lanai could reduce the carbon footprint of some jets since they would save on fuel burned during a second takeoff.

“I think right now our island relies on the hospitality industry and our hotels are geared towards the ultra rich and we need to accommodate that, in a sense,” DeJetley said. “That’s why Ellison is paying for it — because he needs to accommodate his guests. From a taxpayer perspective, it’s a win-win, because more tourists coming to the hotels supports more jobs for those of us that live here.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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