The state previously set a Dec. 31 deadline to reach a deal but it now says enough progress has been made to keep negotiations going.

Dillingham Airfield, officially known as Kawaihapai Airfield, has gotten yet another reprieve from the state to avoid shutting down, but the North Shore destination for skydiving, gliding and pilot training is not in the clear yet.

State transportation officials announced with the Army last month that they would extend their negotiations into 2024 to try and keep the airfield running. The Army owns the land there and leases it to the state. 

It represented the latest extension of those two parties’ talks within the past few years, as airfield tenants and many local community members have anxiously watched since 2020 in hopes that a long-term deal might be reached to keep the facility open for decades to come.

“It’s still very time-sensitive,” said Ben Devine, a parachute mechanic at the airfield and leader of the grassroots organization Save Dillingham Airfield, on Thursday. “There’s a strong sense of urgency for everyone involved” to reach an agreement well before the state’s latest lease expires on July 5, he said.

A Skydive Hawaii plane takes off from Dillingham Air Field Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Waialua. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
State and Army officials have extended their negotiations into 2024 to try and keep Dillingham Airfield open for at least another 50 years. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Last summer, state officials declared that if they didn’t get certain guarantees by the end of 2023 regarding the airfield’s next lease, as well as how the airfield is managed and who runs its water system, the Hawaii Department of Transportation would close the popular facility when its lease ends.

However, there’s been enough progress since then to keep the negotiations going and keep the door open for the airfield, its 25 tenants, and approximately 12 businesses and 130 employees.

No new deadline has been announced to reach a deal, but Devine said that “all in all, it looks pretty promising.”

Local Army leadership received approval from their Pentagon superiors in mid-December to negotiate a 50-year lease with the state’s Department of Transportation. The state said this past summer that without that length of lease, the airfield would have to close.

Since 2012, the Army has only issued relatively short leases of one to five years at the airfield. Now, the state says it needs a lengthier lease to secure dollars from the Federal Aviation Administration and to do long-term planning at the site.

The state also said last summer that it needed assurances by Dec. 31 that it would not have to run the airfield’s water system and that it would have “sufficient rights and powers” to operate the facility or it would shut down the airfield.

It hasn’t gotten those guarantees yet. 

“Significant details relating to the three critical issues remain unresolved,” state Transportation Director Ed Sniffen said in a statement Friday. “Given the material progress and good faith efforts by the Army to date, HDOT will continue negotiations in the strong hope of reaching agreement on the remaining issues in time to execute a new lease and joint use agreement to ensure the airfield remains open for commercial activities.”

In a letter sent out in December, HDOT separately recommended to airfield tenants that they prepare for the possibility that the North Shore hub will close when the latest lease expires in July in case the negotiations fail.

Devine called that message “concerning,” but he figured that HDOT probably needs to “cover its bases” on all possibilities.

Devine added that HDOT has managed to fix the costly leaks in the water system. Those leaks were a big reason the state agency has had to subsidize some $1 million in operations on an airfield that it doesn’t own. Those fixes will also enable another entity – perhaps either a cooperative or community association — to manage the water system instead of HDOT.

The state and the Army further have also made a lot of progress toward enabling HDOT to run the airfield without getting Army approval for simple tasks such as getting a new tie-down to secure a plane there, Devine said.

Sniffen added in his statement: “We appreciate the Army’s commitment to resolving pending issues and thank local Army leadership and staff for the significant progress that has occurred over the past few months.”

“That progress indicates a mutual commitment to resolving the outstanding issues, which gives HDOT confidence that there is a potential path to a new lease and joint use agreement,” Sniffen said.

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