The Incredible Challenge of Improving Airports in Hawai’i

Government Regulation, Hawaiian

The vacation chugs along. I’m back with regular posts on July 3.

For mainland visitors, the airports of Hawai’i probably seem better than they are. The out-dated terminals with open air areas can feel like a slice of paradise, but in reality, nearly every airport in Hawai’i needs a great deal of work. In fact, other than Hilo, every major airport in the state is over capacity, but projects are slow to develop. Part of the problem is the unique way in which the airports in Hawai’i are governed. I sat with Hawaiian’s Blaine Miyasato, Hawaiian’s state government liaison and co-chair of the Airlines Committee of Hawai’i, about these challenges.

[Disclosure: Hawaiian provided flights and one night hotel in Honolulu for this trip.]

To really understand the problems with airports in Hawai’i, you have to understand how they’re run. Hawai’i is one of only three states in the US that runs its own airports. (If you’re wondering, the other two are Alaska and Maryland.) And Hawai’i as a state is not built to run airports well.

Blaine explained that the legislature only meets from mid-January until May each year. That means that any big projects that need to be cleared through the legislature better be done by May, or they’ll have to wait until the following January. Even worse, budgets are closely tied to specific line items. So if the scale or scope of a project changes, they can’t just shift funds around. They have to go back to the legislature for approval during the few months it’s open for business.

As if that’s not bad enough, the process is, by nature, intensely political. Any time there’s a shift in the state government, projects get thrown into disarray. When Democrat Neil Abercrombie took over as governor from Republican Linda Lingle in 2010, he put the entire Honolulu airport modernization project on hold while he reviewed it. It started up again, eventually, but that set the project back for years.

Even when the state government is on the same page and bids are awarded, things aren’t final. There is a bid protest system which allows anyone to protest the award of a bid without spending much money at all. In his estimation, Blaine thinks upwards of half the bids get overturned, so it’s worth it for a losing bidder to protest every time, delaying the project even further.

This means any project takes ages, and all of the airports suffer. You may remember that I first wrote about modernizing Honolulu when I visited four years ago. Here’s the map of the modernization project from that time.

Hawaiian’s new cargo and maintenance facility? That took a decade to get finished with major cost overruns. It got so bad, Hawaiian had to take the project over just to get it done. And that consolidated rental car facility? Well, that’s being built now but the opening date has slipped into 2021.

Then there’s the new Mauka Concourse. That was expected to be finished in 2017, so it’s done right? Well, here’s what it looked like when I drove by:

If you think that looks just like the old commuter terminal that’s been there for decades, then you aren’t imagining things. Nothing has been done. Ok, that’s not entirely true. Mokulele moved out, so that building is empty. Technically, ground was just broken in May, and the commuter terminal should be on its way to being demolished. The new gates (either 6 widebodies or 11 narrowbodies depending upon needs) can then be built, but opening is now not expected until 2020.

What’s most remarkable is that most of this plan hasn’t changed. It’s just been delayed for no good reason. The only change in the overall plan recently is that Diamond Head commuter terminal addition. That has been scrapped, because it was going to cost too much. Instead, Mokulele has moved to a spartan new standalone terminal in that same general vicinity. The new plan, which was revealed in February, is to knock down the old 6-gate Diamond Head Concourse and build a new one. It will look like this:

This looks great with 12 to 14 net new gates and the ability to expand further. Getting rid of the old “gull wing” design means gates will be much closer in to the terminal so walks will be cut down significantly. But even this initial plan predicts it will take 10 years before it can be finished.

That’s just in Honolulu. Other airports are working on projects as well, but it’s all slow-going. At Kahului on Maui, for example, they’re also building a rental car facility. And Kona will see its two check-in areas and security checkpoints consolidated into one big one. These are both probably long overdue, but there are many other projects that need attention as well.

What’s the solution? Blaine along with the Airlines Committee, the state’s Department of Transportation, and the governor have all been pushing for the state to create an airports corporation, an authority similar to what you find in many other places. It almost made it through the legislature this year, but the plan ended up being shot down in the end. Chances are that they’ll try to push this through again, but of course, it can’t happen soon. The legislature isn’t back in session until next January.

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16 comments on “The Incredible Challenge of Improving Airports in Hawai’i

  1. So that’s what they were building in Kahului. I thought maybe it was a new parking garage. A consolidated rental car facility makes sense given the nonsensical layout the rental car lots currently have there, with them splayed out all over the far side of the airport like that. But they can’t even clean up the mess inside the terminal. They still have not removed all of the long-ago-shut-down people movers. They removed one or two about eight years ago. There are still a couple left that just sit there useless.

    1. The OGG rental car facility is nearing completion and will have a short rail line from the facility to the ticketing and baggage claim areas, and this will eliminate the car rental buses and having to drive through the airport to return rental cars. The new rental car garage will hold 4,000 cars, which is needed to handle the 2,500 car daily rental volume (more than HNL.)
      Now if they can just finish the additional car parking lot across from the terminal, things will be better. And yes, they need a couple more gates, with the long aircraft turns seen there, and maybe someday a 2000′ runway extension, altho full UA 777’s to ORD don’t seem to have a problem getting off the ground.

  2. I agree that despite their vintage charm, Hawaii’s airports have been terrible for decades. My mother’s family is from the islands and they’re fond of saying that nothing gets done in Hawaii without a decade of planning, a decade of fighting, and a decade of construction. She’s told me that HNL was a construction-filled mess for her entire childhood, as the Diamond Head/Ewa concourses were built and the terminal was doubled in size. For a long time, the dreaded wiki-wiki buses were the ONLY way you could get to those gates, and those gates were the only ones that could handle widebodies.

    Then they had a pretty good 10-15 years where the new terminals in Hilo, Lihue and Kahului were built, and for a little while there was actually sufficient capacity. I still think of these terminals as “new” because I can remember when they opened, but every time I visit I’m left rubbing my eyes in wonder at how dated they now look. Hilo is basically a museum – lots of big, cavernous 1970s architecture and only a handful of people ever inside. The outdoor huts in Kona are cute but they’re woefully undersized, and all the piecemeal attempts at creating more space have pretty much ruined it. Lihue is completely out of ticketing and security checkpoint space and the lines are horrendous at peak times. Kahului, despite being the newest, is probably in the worst shape – a big concrete-and-steel mess that just looks terribly aged and unloved.

    An airport corporation would help accelerate improvements, that’s for sure.

  3. Brings to mind two excellent books: “Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Venture” and “Democracy-The God That Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order”.

  4. HNL is a real disappointment but then I guess they have a captive market and don’t feel pressure to make improvements

  5. Until people quit coming to Hawaii, there is little incentive to change the bureaucracy. The airports are old but they do their job.
    Would you be so kind as to share the Cost per Enplaned passenger at the Hawaiian airports?

  6. Does Maryland have an airports commission? How are they able to keep improving BWI while Hawaii takes ages to get things done? Is it just because Maryland only has one major airport? Because they have competition down the road in Virginia?

    1. Ben – I don’t know why it works better, but the state only runs two airports: BWI and Martin State Airport. The Maryland Aviation Administration runs it and is a state department.

  7. Serious questions…

    Would you say that the management/operation/politics of the airports in Hawaii are better or worse than that of JFK (and possibly other NYC airports, but at least JFK, given the snowstorm meltdown in January)?

    What airports or locales do you consider to have done a very good job managing/operating airports and in navigating local politics, in terms of getting through the red tape and modernizing airports relatively quickly while keeping costs at reasonable levels?

    1. Kilroy – Apples and oranges. The governance structure over JFK vs Honolulu is totally different, so it’s not an easy comparison. But Honolulu is already fighting with one hand tied behind its back because of the challenge of operating under the state.

      Airports that have done a good job? There are plenty out there depending upon the criteria.

  8. What about amenities? I live in the Bay and I just started to notice when coming to the islands that there aren’t any nice restaurants or anything at the airports like SFO or OAK. Seems like such a wasted opportunity given all the great chefs/food spots on the islands and all the interisland and asia-mainland layovers there must be. Are there any plans to make the airports more comfortable in that respect?

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