Grumbling at interisland terminal increasing
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
Corpuz was raised to believe that families need to be together in hard times. But with interisland airfares running nearly double what they were just a few years ago, Corpuz a guest services agent for the Sheraton Moana Surfrider Hotel could not afford the $1,000 he figures it would have cost him.
So with regret, Corpuz jostled his boxes and bags and prepared to wade through a series of lines to get on board a 40-minute flight to the Big Island to be with his grieving sister.
"Last year I made 10 trips to Kohala," Corpuz said. "This year I've hardly flown. ... Prices are too expensive and the lines are ridiculous."
Up and down the interisland terminal, kama'aina passengers and visitors from Japan and the Mainland are grumbling with increasingly louder voices about higher costs and delays that are changing the rhythms of island life and threatening Hawai'i's tourism image.
Local residents and even many tourists remember the days before the Sept. 11 attacks when they could buy an interisland ticket for as little as $50, breeze through security and catch the next flight.
It was a system that passengers came to depend on, one that Gov. Linda Lingle has equated with interstate highways on the Mainland.
But a typical, $160 round-trip ticket to hop from island to island now means attendance is down at funerals. Family reunions are smaller. And spontaneous shopping trips to Honolulu or weekend visits to a Neighbor Island have become inconvenient, time-consuming and expensive.
"There's no question that interisland travel is changing," said Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Keoni Wagner. "But from the airline's perspective, this is necessary change."
Hawaiian Airlines, the state's largest carrier, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.
Some Hawai'i travelers even have abandoned their annual, Neighbor Island summer vacations this year, and instead opted for package trips to Las Vegas that include hotel rooms, food and airport shuttles.
Several local travel agents are advertising Las Vegas packages for as low as $389.Ê
"We used to come to O'ahu for vacation all of the time," said Sherry Veriato of Hilo. "Now we just go to Vegas. It's just a lot less hassle. And it doesn't cost that much more."
Marshall Suehiro of Hawai'i Kai filled out address tags for two cases of Hawaiian Host macadamia nuts he was bringing on a trip to visit in-laws in Seattle and considered the state of interisland travel.
Suehiro, who was with his wife, Lorraine, and daughters, Cici, 6, and Sherry, 5, said interisland airfare prices mean "it's almost as cheap just to go to the Mainland."
Aloha Airlines is among the carriers trying to speed passengers through the interisland terminal by working with Transportation Security Administration officials locally and in Washington.
"Every airport around the country is experiencing long lines during peak travel periods and every airport is trying to get more staff and more equipment from TSA," Aloha spokesman Stu Glauberman said.
Richard Kelley, board chairman of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, worries about the cumulative effect that higher prices and long lines will have on the economy.
"It is really serious," Kelley said. "Tourism is our No. 1 industry and this is a significant impediment to tourism. It's certainly not the kind of experience we want to give our visitors or our locals, who make up 20 to 30 percent of our travelers."
From his home in Denver, Kelley regularly monitors Outrigger's pricing plans and e-mailed company officials recently about a Big Island package that was $200 more than similar ones on O'ahu and Maui, which get more direct flights from the Mainland.
"Why are we inconsistent in our offerings?" Kelley wrote in his e-mail. "The reply came back, 'The $200 was all for airfare.' ... These things have a tremendous impact."
And then there are the lines in Hawai'i's airport terminals that have visitors going back home grumbling about their final experience in Hawai'i.
Two weeks ago, Kelley stood in line at Honolulu International Airport when a man behind him started to complain.
"The guy starts going, 'God, this has got to be the worst airport in the nation,' " Kelley said. "Personally, I can't say it's the worst airport in the nation. But it's certainly not as efficient as others."
He and his wife, Linda, plan to fly back to Hawai'i for a New Year's celebration in Wailea. And Linda's bracing for a headache, Kelley said.
"She's already dreading the experience of trying to get out of Maui," he said.
Higher prices are the result of a tighter interisland market that's costing Hawai'i's two major airlines, Aloha and Hawaiian. Both airlines raised their rates to coincide with the peak summer travel season.
"In the past you could get relatively cheap fares any time," Glauberman said. "Now you have to do some planning. And if you plan in advance, low interisland airfares are available."
Aloha's lowest advertised fares are $70 for a one-way ticket. Hawaiian this week featured a one-way SuperSaver fare of $72 on its Web site for certain routes.
The long lines inside the terminals can be traced to tighter security measures since the Sept. 11 attacks, a reluctance of local passengers to use faster e-tickets and a rise in people carrying banned items such as scissors and even box cutters.
"Contraband items have gone up 20 percent," said Scott Ishikawa, the Department of Transportation's spokesman. "When you have one person with a contraband item, it holds up everybody. Sometimes we see 40 scissors and box cutters just in one shift. Imagine what that does to the lines."
The Transportation Department added new security lines to the mauka and makai ends of the interisland terminal July 3. For Hawaiian Airlines, Wagner said, "We noticed a tremendous difference."
Where peak time delays once took an hour, passengers now get through the security check in about 30 minutes, said Sidney Hayakawa, federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration at the Honolulu airport.
The new lines were part of the recommendations contained in a 2002 assessment by Lockheed Martin. But lack of space and money mean it will be hard to follow the other recommendations to add more checkpoints in the center of the terminal.
"As a local boy, I'm saddened to see what's happened," said Hayakawa, who was born in Halawa Housing and grew up in Wahiawa. "I have an appreciation of the Islands and the people. We're trying to be as convenient and polite as possible. In Honolulu, our mantra is to greet the passenger, help the passenger, screen the passenger and thank the passenger."
It's difficult to quantify visitors' unhappiness because the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism does not specifically ask about interisland travel in its annual visitor satisfaction survey.
But Yujiro Kuwabara, general manager of customer service for JTB Hawaii, worries about the criticisms he's hearing from Japanese tourists.
Travel from Japan to the Islands has been off sharply in the past few months, down 30.9 percent from 121,693 visitors in the first half of last year to 84,096 over the first half of this year. Much of the decline results from the triple impact of the Iraq war, SARS and Japan's economic slump.
But many Japanese visitors who do come to Hawai'i have been leaving with complaints, Kuwabara said.
"They are experiencing quite a bit of inconvenience," Kuwabara said. "Once they experience inconvenience, they may try to avoid Hawai'i the next time, which will negatively impact tourism in Hawai'i."
During Lingle's mission to Japan last month, travel agents raised concerns about cutbacks in interisland flights implemented late last year. The restrictions have made it more difficult for travel agencies to accommodate the plans of travelers who want to visit different islands, the Japanese travel agents said.
The situation is not likely to change soon. Aloha and Hawaiian reduced flights and increased fares to return to profitability on interisland routes.
So for now, travelers such as David Lawrence are adapting by paying more and cutting back on extra flights.
He still commutes every day from his home in Kula, Maui, to his job in Kaka'ako as the executive director of the Hawai'i Community Loan Fund.
He travels on a monthly pass that costs $1,599 which went up $500 in the spring.
"In the old days, it was 'Hey, let's go to Honolulu for the day,' " Lawrence said. "We used to come to Honolulu for weddings, anniversaries, high-school reunions.
"Those days are over."
Advertiser staff writer Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this story. Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com or 525-8085.