But Mokulele Airlines’ new parent company says interisland travelers will start to see improvements in service much sooner than that.

Mokulele Airlines, the only airline serving residents of Molokai and Lanai, has a new parent company, and customers can expect to see changes to service in the coming months and years, including the possible addition of electric seagliders to the fleet, according to the company’s CEO.

Maui

The seagliders, which fly port-to-port about 60 feet over the ocean, won’t be ready to fly for a few more years. However, airline executives say Mokulele customers, who have complained in recent months about cancellations and delays, will start to see improvements sooner.

Surf Air Mobility, a Los Angeles-based electric air travel company, acquired Mokulele’s parent company, Southern Airways, at the end of July just before Surf Air went public on the New York Stock Exchange.

Being a publicly traded company gives it access to greater capital, which will allow it to get more planes back in service in Hawaii and help ease some of the frustrations Mokulele customers have been experiencing, CEO Stan Little said Thursday. The company is also on track to bring the electric seagliders, which are being manufactured by Boston-based startup Regent Craft, by late 2026 or early 2027, pending necessary approvals, he said.

Mokulele Airlines has been bombarded in recent months with complaints about unreliable service causing passengers, especially from Molokai and Lanai, to miss work and medical appointments on other islands.

The problems are mainly caused by supply chain issues that have stalled the arrival of parts needed to bring some sidelined airplanes back in service.

“We’ve got 17 aircraft out there, and on any given day we are fortunate if we have 10 or maybe 11 that are flying because other airplanes are either waiting on parts, they’re waiting on engines for overhaul, all of the things that have remained backed up,” Little said.

Passengers board a Mokulele Airlines flight on Oahu that's headed to Molokai.
Customers have been complaining of cancellations and flight delays at Mokulele Airlines for months. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

Making Improvements

But passengers will start to see some relief in the next three to five weeks, he said.

New engines have arrived for one of the airline’s 28-seater Saab 340s that has been offline all summer, Little said. Once that craft is ready to fly, it will replace the 28-seater currently in service, which needs to be pulled for repairs to its air-conditioning system. Once those repairs are done, both large aircraft will be operating at the same time, which will help increase the airline’s capacity, he said.

In eight to 10 weeks, or sometime before the holidays, Little said parts for some nine-passenger Cessna Grand Caravans that are grounded for repairs will start to arrive. That will increase the number of planes the airline can operate per day to around 15. 

Three aircraft are grounded right now because their landing gears are expired and replacements are difficult to find, Little said.

“There are none to buy,” he said. “We’re working right now on buying a landing gear assembly in Kenya to ship to Hawaii because you can’t get them in the United States or Europe or Canada. This is just unprecedented really in the history of aviation.”

Currently, Mokulele operates 26 daily departures from Molokai and 12 from Lanai, said Keith Sisson, chief of staff at Mokulele Airlines.  

As more planes get back to operating, the airline will add roughly six departures per week at high-demand times, such as Monday mornings, he said. 

The company also hopes to have extra planes in reserve so it can add flights as demand dictates.

Supply chain issues that have been holding up repairs and maintenance were caused first by disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic and more recently by the Russian war against Ukraine, Little said. Some factories making airplane parts are located in Russia or Ukraine, and many precious metals needed for aviation equipment are sourced from those countries as well as China. 

Plane engines generally need to be overhauled every three to five years, he said. Normally, the process takes about six weeks, but now it’s lasting around six months.

This is a worldwide problem, and it’s from the biggest jetliners in the world all the way down to the nine-seat aircraft,” he said. “The challenge for us is, the bigger airlines can mix and match their fleet … We just can’t do that as easily with the nine-seaters.” 

But, he said, the airline has tried to maintain flexibility for its customers.

Surf Air Mobility says it hopes to bring electric seagliders to Hawaii by late 2026 or early 2027. (Courtesy of Regent Craft)

For example, early this month, a couple from Molokai needed to get to Honolulu for the birth of their grandchild, but flights were sold out, Sisson said. Mokulele diverted a plane that was en route from Kapalua on Maui to Honolulu and had it pick them up on Molokai.

The company has also not laid off any Mokulele employees since the acquisition and is hiring, he said.

Electric Future

Surf Air is seeking approvals from the necessary agencies, including the Hawaii Department of Transportation, the U.S. Coast Guard and Hawaiian Electric Co. but hopes to start testing electric seagliders in the state by 2026 or 2027, Little said. He said he’d like to see Molokai and Lanai be the first to get the seagliders.

He also said the company won’t operate the gliders unless it has support from all stakeholders, including local organizations and environmental groups.

Surf Air is waiting on the results of a study that will show possible routes, ports the gliders can fly in and out of and locations where most demand exists.

The next step will be making sure charging infrastructure exists at the airports.

The seagliders can carry 12 passengers and two crew as well as 3,500 pounds of cargo, according to Regent. The gliders can cruise at 180 mph and travel 160 nautical miles.

Little said the gliders will fly 40-60 feet off the water. They’ll initially be tested in Hawaii carrying packages and cargo so people can get used to them before tickets go on sale for passengers.

“It looks a little bit like a spaceship when you see it for the first time,” he said. “We want people to get comfortable with seeing it around.”

Ticket prices haven’t been determined yet, but Little said he expects them to be cheaper than regular airplane tickets and more steady because the price of electricity is more stable than the price of fuel.

But we want to make sure that a majority of the local community in each place that we serve says, ‘Yes, this is a good idea. Yes, this is going to bring costs down. Yes, this is going to be great for the environment,’” he said.

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

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