More planes are planned to avoid further travel disruptions for frustrated residents.

Molokai and Lanai residents who rely on Mokulele Airlines for air travel have clogged the company’s customer service hotline and taken to social media to complain about flight cancellations and long delays.


Those complaints soared in recent weeks as weather and aircraft maintenance issues wreaked havoc on air travel to and from the Friendly and Pineapple isles, which have populations of about 7,700 and 3,000, respectively.

So it was welcome news when Mokulele Airlines announced a $10 million investment to expand its fleet of aircraft and improve customer service following a barrage of lengthy travel delays and flight cancellations primarily affecting Molokai and Lanai residents.

“For Lanai and Molokai, we definitely need to step up,” Mokulele Airlines Executive Vice President Richard Schuman said at an informational meeting Monday night.

Mokulele Airlines Executive Vice President Richard Schuman with a view of their Saab aircraft at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu.
Mokulele Airlines Executive Vice President Richard Schuman with a view of the airline’s Saab 340 aircraft at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. His Makani Kai Air company merged with Mokulele in June 2020. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022) 

The airline will acquire a third 28-passenger Saab 340 aircraft, as well as three new nine-seat Tecnam Travellers to serve as back-up aircraft to help avoid travel disruptions when problems arise with its regular fleet of planes.

A Molokai dentist said during the meeting with airline executives that the airline’s flight schedule has become unreliable, causing her and other medical workers who travel between islands to miss patient appointments. Medical staff on Lanai have also blamed increasingly common hours-long flight delays for causing patients to miss pressing appointments with Honolulu doctors.

Southern Airways Chief Marketing Officer Keith Sisson acknowledged its subsidiary’s recent shortcomings, blaming bad weather and poor visibility in March for a majority of the travel delays passengers experienced.

“We had three attempts by one family to try to get from Honolulu to Lanai and every time the plane had to turn around and go back because the visibility was below the legal minimum,” Sisson said. 

Airline executives underscored other factors outside the airline’s control for causing travel difficulties preceding the spate of poor weather in March, including Air Traffic Control delays and the closure of a Honolulu runway.

But Sisson did accept some responsibility on behalf of the airline, pointing to an inefficient flight schedule adopted by Mokulele during the early post-Covid travel era. In March the airline debuted a new flight plan that he said is designed to reduce delays partly caused by poor scheduling. Some of the flight cancellations travelers have received in recent weeks are simply due to the shift to this more efficient system, he said.

Passengers board a Mokulele Airlines flight on Oahu that's headed to Molokai.
Passengers board a Mokulele Airlines flight in Honolulu that’s headed to Molokai. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

Unlike residents of other islands, Molokai and Lanai travelers have one choice when traveling by air.

As the Covid-19 crisis consumed the airline industry, two airlines — Makani Kai and Ohana by Hawaiian — ceased operations, making Mokulele Airlines the only air carrier servicing Molokai and Lanai residents. 

A commuter airline operating under the umbrella of the Florida-based Southern Airways Express, Mokulele has a critical role in shuffling many Molokai and Lanai residents to and from more populous islands to reach doctors and jobs. 

Mokulele also competes with Hawaiian and Southwest airlines to provide interisland service to Oahu, Maui and the Big Island. But unlike the much larger 100-plus passenger planes operated by Hawaiian and Southwest airlines for interisland travel, Mokulele primarily operates nine-passenger Cessna Grand Caravans. 

Last year the airline introduced two 28-passenger planes — both of which have been inoperable in recent weeks due to damage to one aircraft and a mandatory five-year inspection for the other, a scenario that Sisson described as “bad luck.”

“It’s hard to schedule enough nine-seat planes to make up for when a (28-seat) plane is not available,” Sisson said.

But with a third on the way, the airline executive said this scenario will become exceedingly rare.

The three new Tecnam Travellers that the airline plans to phase into service will only be deployed when passengers are at risk of being stranded overnight or to cover for planes in the airline’s regular fleet that need to be pulled off the schedule for inspection of service, according to airline executives, as they are smaller and can’t carry as many bags.

“But in a pinch,” Sisson said, “it will get you home.”

Next week the company is launching a mobile app that will allow customers to purchase tickets, change flights and monitor flight status. The app is expected to reduce long customer service wait times.

More than 150 people attended the online meeting Monday, raising issues about the reliability and affordability of air travel, especially for residents who need to fly to access critical health and social services.

Sen. Lynn DeCoite proposed legislation geared at cutting air travel costs for Molokai residents.

State legislators are vetting a bill to create an airline subsidy program spearheaded by Molokai Sen. Lynn DeCoite. The legislation would require the state Department of Transportation to provide $1 million in subsidies to airlines operating out of the Molokai airport over the course of a two-year pilot program.

The program aims to reduce fares for residents who would need to show their driver’s license to access reduced ticket pricing. It also seeks to incentivize more air carriers to service Hawaii’s less populous islands.

DeCoite said on Monday that she would like to expand the program proposal to include residents of Lanai.

One idea that Sisson tried to dispel at the meeting is that Mokulele has taken advantage of its position as the only air carrier servicing Molokai and Lanai to raise its ticket prices.

“We’ve never done anything like that,” he said. “Our prices are pretty much exactly where they were pre-Covid, and we are proud of that.”

Rising fuel costs triggered an inflationary hike on the price of a ticket last year, according to Sisson. But generally he said the airline aims to stabilize Molokai and Lanai ticket prices around $100 for a one-way trip.

“It is extremely difficult to make an airline work on Molokai and Lanai,” Sisson said. “And the reason is aircraft are more efficient the longer they’re in the air. The flights are so short, they put so many cycles on the engine. They burn the tires on the landings. You have to replace brakes more often. And it is a very expensive operation to run flies on a short haul.”

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

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