Rob Parsons

PR-friendly skies

Rob flew on Mokulele Airlines' maiden voyage and all he got was this lousy T-shirt

by Rob Parsons

February 05, 2009

Shareholder ML&P has slapped its logo
on the new planes.

Like Bill Murray in the classic movie Groundhog Day, I found myself awakening day after day to the same tune. No, it wasn't Sonny & Cher, but the catchy jingle for Northwest Orient Airlines: "Give wings to your heart/Your spirit soars/On Northwest Orient [insert Chinese gong sound] airlines."

The childhood flashback to the tune from my Dad's radio while he shaved-a dreamy alarm clock realization that I was running late for getting dressed and eating breakfast before elementary school-was part of my musing about traveling to faraway places.

It began last week with an e-mail that read, "Maui Invite To The Press: Mokulele Airlines' Inaugural Flight from Kahului to Honolulu."

Hmmm. I recalled reading press releases about Mokulele's $28 fare for the month of February, their partnering with Alaska Airlines for a mileage program and new service from Kahului to Honolulu. But this sure sounded a lot like? a free trip to the big city!

I checked in with Editor Jacob Shafer and asked if I could cover the story. I assured him I'd find more to write about than just a business promo piece such as The Maui News might run, and he gave me the OK.

Accepting free flights, after all, can be a slippery slope. In 2005, Sen. Kalani English settled a Hawaii State Ethics Commission complaint by paying a $1,000 fine, but admitted no wrongdoing in being a "guest" on Hawaii Air ambulance flights between Oahu and Maui in 2002.

More recently, Maui Ethics Board Chair Alan Kaufman admitted he accepted a free flight from developer Everett Dowling. The matter came up during a review of County Councilmember Wayne Nishiki's late filing of forms that disclosed a large loan he received from Dowling.

And back in October 2003, Dowling and site work contractor Steve Goodfellow hired a helicopter to fly a Maui News reporter upslope from his South Maui One Palauea Bay project, one day after muddy storm runoff turned the ocean the color of cappuccino. The developers intended to show the media that the source of the muddy torrents was higher up the mountain, not from grading work on their project. However, video taken by a South Maui resident showed a large pile of unprotected fill dirt melting into the drainageway to the ocean.

So, it was with forethought about my own personal ethics that I gleefully agreed to accept the free flight invitation anyway. Now if they'd thrown in tickets for the Pro Bowl?

That the inaugural flight took place on Groundhog Day evoked a bit of déjà vu, in keeping with the aforementioned Bill Murray movie. Hadn't Hawaii been down this road, or runway-adding a third airline and dropping inter-island fares-many times over?

Back in 1979, Mid-Pacific Airlines challenged the longtime island carriers, Hawaiian and Aloha. Their turbo-prop service lasted until 1988.

Two years later, Discovery Airlines took off, but in a cloud of doubt about ownership interests. Unions for the other two airlines filed objections with the U.S. Department of Transportation over the fact that the majority of company stock was held by an executive with Nansay Hawaii, a Japanese real estate development firm.

The USDOT gave the airline a nine-month provisional certificate to operate, during which time it was required to prove it was controlled by American interests. It was ultimately unable to do so, and the upstart commuter service filed for bankruptcy in August 1991.

Another turbo-prop inter-island service, Mahalo Airlines, flew from 1993-1997, eventually filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

More recently, go! Airlines (a division of Mainland commuter Mesa Air Group) began flying in Hawaii in 2006, utilizing five small, 50-passenger Canadian-built jets. Later that year, go! reached an agreement with Mokulele Airlines to operate smaller Cessna Grand Caravan flights to Kapalua, Maui, Molokai and Lanai under the name go! Express.

The new airline quickly found itself embroiled in an expensive legal nightmare over allegedly using confidential business information acquired during Hawaiian Airlines' bankruptcy proceedings. By May 2008, a settlement was reached requiring Mesa to pay $52 million to Hawaiian. But a month earlier, Aloha Airlines folded after serving Hawaii since 1946, citing high fuel costs and competition from go!.

Now, even as Hawaii's visitor-based economy is reeling with double-digit drops in hotel occupancy rates, a bolstered Mokulele Airlines rolled out the red carpet to show off its new routes, fancy aircraft and cheap prices to a happy throng of garland-wearing guests.

The inaugural Mokulele flight from Kahului to Honolulu featured music, hula, a kumu's blessing and free T-shirts for all passengers-even those flying for free. KHON-TV2 sent a film crew, Maui Visitors Bureau sent their executive director Teryl Vencl and top executives from Maui Land & Pineapple and Alexander & Baldwin were also on hand.

In fact, ML&P's pineapple-and-butterfly Kapalua logo is emblazoned on the tale of Mokulele's three new Embraer-170 jets, as they are among the airlines' shareholders.

Mokulele, based in Kailua-Kona, was founded in 1998 and has operated volcano tour flights as well as federally scheduled flight service to underserved markets. Since 2005, when the airline was acquired by current CEO Bill Boyer, services and partnerships have expanded.

The mid-sized, 70-passenger jets will be flown by Republic Airways subsidiary, Shuttle America. A Mokulele press release reports that Republic operates 233 regional jets, with 1,200 daily flights to 99 cities, 34 states, Canada, Mexico and Jamaica.

Any additional descriptions of the smooth flight, extra head room, comfy faux-leather seats and cordial flight crew would begin to sound like pandering. Suffice it to say that the trip to Honolulu was as effortless as if I'd been whisked away on a big, puffy cumulous cloud.

Back on the ground, I hopped on a city bus to downtown. As we passed A'ala Park and entered Chinatown, I glanced over to see the Hawaii Superferry in dry dock. Just a few short years ago they had pitched their ferry service as an alternative to high airfares, claiming they could offer inter-island travel for half the cost. At the same time, they asked the state for $40 million to make harbor improvements to accommodate two twin-hulled fast-ferries, though the state now faces more than $5 million in additional costs.

The current Hawaii Superferry Web site notes fares "from $49 each way," about twice the cost of Mokulele's February rates on all jet service routes. Superferry also notes some "Sweet deals in February" provided booking is made by February 18, when the vessel is scheduled to re-launch service after yearly maintenance and repairs.

The ferry had some rough going in January, when winter swells and choppy conditions damaged more than a dozen vehicles, with "more than half the passengers vomiting," according to newspaper reports. Unreported by the media, however, was Hawaii Superferry's tacking on an 18 percent fuel surcharge on the transport of all vehicles.

Superferry's early visit to dry dock (less than a year since last year's repairs) had some speculating that a reported near-miss with a whale was actually a whale strike. On January 21, Superferry reported maneuvering to miss a whale at 7:25am off the Penguin Banks area, south of Molokai. Believing the vessel had, in fact, struck a whale, a passenger contacted blogs on Kauai to report the incident. It is unclear whether a strike took place or whether the impression of a collision could have been "the result of an errant wave slapping between the twin hulls as they made their quick turn" as the Island Breath blogsite wrote.

Back in October, Kauai blogger Brad Parsons (no relation, though with his propensity for research, writing and environmental advocacy I ought to consider him a calabash cousin) calculated that Superferrry's four diesel engines use 15 times as much fuel as a Hawaiian Airlines jet would use to cover the same route, an incredible 6,000 gallons per one-way trip between Oahu and Maui. The energy output while in transit, according to his calculations, could power up to 16,500 homes.

The highlight of my whirlwind trip to Honolulu was lunch with Henry Curtis and Kat Brady of Life of the Land. Dining at Little Village, not far from their Chinatown office, they briefed me on top legislative topics at this year's session.

I also got to congratulate Brady for recently being given a Martin Luther King Jr. award for her years of civil rights work for prisoners, gender equity, Hawaiian rights and protection of the environment. Barack Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was similarly honored by the Hawaii Friends of Civil Rights.

Curtis and Brady said that the burning issue this year is the ceded lands issue. Of course, great emphasis will be placed on the economy, renewable energy and health care. And, Curtis noted, gambling is "rearing its ugly head again."

Brady said that a whopping 3,500 bills were introduced this year-1,680 in the senate and 1,843 in the state house-despite hopes that the overall number might be curtailed this year.

House Bill 1, a nuclear energy research funding bill favored by House Speaker Calvin Say, was already "killed" by Energy and Environment Committee Chair Mina Morita. Consideration for the Biofuels Master Plan and an undersea electric transmission cable from Lanai and/or Molokai to Oahu are both on hold for a year, pending more studies and the resolution of disputes.

Curtis noted that one of the elements of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI) serves to undermine the community's right to due process, now guaranteed through the Integrated Resource Planning Process (IRP). Establishment of the new Clean Energy Scenario Planning (CESP), which would replace the IRP, is not being considered through the usual docket process at the Public Utility Commission and thus only Life of the Land is at the table with them to help participate in laying out the new planning procedures.

Brady said that the new HCEI, largely top-down planning by the Governor, the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and Hawaiian Electric, is meant to confuse. "It's all about obfuscation," she said.

"But they (HECO) confuse themselves more than anyone else," she added with a chuckle.

We talked more about the state's energy outlook, in between bites of mu shu vegetables and eggplant with tofu. Soon, it was time for our enlightening discussion, and our lunch, to end. I paid my $2 for the bus ride back to the airport and strolled to the gates to return to Maui.

Hopefully this latest round of cheap inter-island travel won't end too soon, as it certainly could help boost our sagging state economy. And should our elected officials take a wrong turn this legislative session, I've got this bright red Mokulele Airlines T-shirt to run up the flagpole to let them know.