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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Kahului Airport bracing for crush of impatient fliers

By Kelly Yamanouchi and Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writers

The Maui airport was designed primarily for interisland flights but gets about 6 million passengers a year. Summer will bring a record number of trans-Pacific flights.

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Sometimes you get more than you bargained for. That's what is happening on Maui as officials prepare for long lines of impatient tourists at a jammed Kahului Airport this summer.

Starting June 28 and running through August, a record 169 trans-Pacific flights will arrive at Kahului Airport each week, up from 139 last summer, said Maui Visitors Bureau executive director Marsha Wienert, the newly appointed state tourism liaison. About 275 interisland flights also fly into the airport weekly.

All of this air traffic will mean larger crowds, longer check-in and security lines and, undoubtedly, some unhappy tourists during the busiest times of the day.

It's not the kind of impression that the tourism industry wants to leave with visitors they hope to beckon back to the Islands the following summer.

Wienert wants to calm visitors' frayed nerves with a $20,000 hospitality program that will be tried out at Kahului during the peak summer season.

While all of the interisland airports and terminals can become busy during peak check-in times, Maui tourism has expanded so swiftly that the crowds have outgrown the airport's capacity.

The hospitality program money will pay for cheerful airport guides and Hawaiian music at the security lines.

The services would run in addition to an existing program that provides tourists with music at the baggage-claim area.

Wienert plans to supplement state and county money for the new program with private sector donations, because "everybody here on Maui knows that there is a challenge," she said.

"The last impression is a lasting impression," Wienert said. "We can't do anything about the space, but we can at least have some smiling people there, some Hawaiian music."

Wienert, who steps in as Gov. Linda Lingle's tourism liaison July 1, hopes the hospitality program will prove successful and can be expanded to other islands when there is a need.

Why they fly to Maui

While state officials puzzle over how to increase flights to Hawai'i, especially international flights, Maui has more flights than it can easily handle.

That's partly because airlines are switching some of their nonstop Mainland flights to Maui and other Neighbor Islands instead of O'ahu. Maui is also benefiting from travelers who are returning to Hawai'i looking for new places to visit or who desire a quick way to get to the island with less hassle.

But because of the airport's limited space and ticket counters, Maui officials are anticipating long lines, Wienert said.

The crowds usually peak during midday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Airlines prefer morning departures from the Mainland because they are easier to sell — and such a timetable calls for midday departures for flights back to the Mainland.

"You've got what's called bottleneck," Wienert said. "I would say Maui has the largest challenges because of the type of space restrictions that we have and the number of flights that we have."

The airport, originally designed to handle primarily interisland flights, now gets about 6 million passengers a year.

In 1985, about 4.3 million passengers traveled through Kahului Airport. In 1975, it was only 1.2 million.

"We expected increases over the years, but to reach the 6 million level, I think that's ahead of schedule," said Maui airports manager Jon Sakamoto.

The lobby is also crowded with security equipment and sometimes with snaking lines of passengers. Interisland and trans-Pacific passengers all wait in the same long queues.

Get there earlier for check-in

Officials are urging people to arrive at Kahului Airport 2 1/2 hours before their departure to allow enough time to get through the lines. That's a half-hour earlier than at other airports.

One holdup is the security checks. The Transportation Security Administration recently announced cuts in federal screeners nationwide for budgetary reasons. In the state, the deepest cuts will come on Maui.

The projected cuts for Hawai'i announced in April — nearly 250 positions — include 94 on Maui and 65 in Honolulu. The remaining reductions will occur on other islands.

Maui officials challenged their personnel cuts, which represented 46 percent of the security administration staff on the island, and only 13 jobs have been cut so far, Sakamoto said. But another round of cuts is expected by Sept. 30 and a large staff reduction could extend security wait times.

Calm before the storm

Even though visitor arrivals to Maui are strong, the Kahului Airport departure terminal yesterday was experiencing a temporary lull after the arrival of the first wave of summer vacationers enjoying the island's beaches and golf courses.

But in a week or two when they pack their bags to head home, the scene will be different, according to baggage porter Raymond Lyons Jr.

During hectic periods, "there are lines up and down the curb, and inside it's even longer," Lyons said.

"This summer it's going to be more crazy," he said. "It's not even funny. It's so packed, it's chaos.

"You get stressed-out because people are running up to you and they're yelling at you, and I'm not even employed by the airlines."

The porters said the delays and traveler frustration are due to two reasons: additional safety inspections and the volume of air travel outstripping the terminal capacity.

In addition to security checks, travelers to the Mainland must undergo agricultural inspections, airline check-ins and gate screenings.

"People miss their flights and they were here two hours early," porter Kai Haole said.

"They talk about Hawai'i's tourism, but if it's that much of a hassle, nobody's going to come," said Jareth Lun Lung, another porter.

The airline counter space at the narrow departure terminal is cramped, and the agricultural inspection machines are only a few paces away from the check-in lines. The addition of TSA baggage screening stations has created even more congestion within the terminal, and there's only one line leading to the gate screening stations.

"It's just a fact that Maui is growing. If they extend the airport,

I think it will be much better," Lun Lung said.

Young traveler's viewpoint

Arend Kolen, 19, a college student from Portland, Ore., who had just arrived at Kahului Airport with 16-year-old brother Nick, said the prospect of long airport check-in lines wouldn't keep him from a Hawaiian vacation.

But if the experience on the trip home turns him off, he might try another less crowded island next time, or pick a different day or time of year to travel to avoid busy periods, he said.

Maui officials hope to make improvements to the airport to alleviate the long lines, although the changes would be several years out.

A $12 million, two-phase project under review would add ticket counters and expand the lobby, among other changes.

If approved, construction would start in late fall and the project would be completed by early 2005, Sakamoto said.

Reach Kelly Yamanouchi at 535-2470 or by e-mail at kyamanouchi@honoluluadvertiser.com. Christie Wilson can be reached at (808) 244-4880 or cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.