Honolulu airport getting $2.3B makeover
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Robbie Dingeman
Within two years, an air-conditioned people mover will take international travelers from their gates at Honolulu International Airport to customs and immigration, new buses will replace old, and a wider variety of restaurants will be available, from sandwich shops to a sit-down eatery pouring locally brewed beers as part of a decade of long-awaited improvements.
Hawai'i's main airport remains a key concern for the state's number one private industry: both for officials and customers.
The airport was scheduled for a round of major improvements before Sept. 11, 2001, when the travel world changed instantly and irrevocably.
After that, revenue plummeted as travel stumbled and then slowly recovered. But tightened security meant only ticketed passengers passed through the airport lobbies into the stores and restaurants at the gates. Businesses suddenly faced fewer customers who were often there for at least twice as long as before.
State tourism liaison Marsha Wienert has heard the complaints from travelers, and the state has begun a makeover that will cost $2.3 billion over the next 10 years. Last week, she said they're making progress but still have a number of steps to go.
Wienert highlights the moves away from the hot, outdated Wiki Wiki buses, better food throughout the airport, a people mover for international arrivals and shifting baggage screening out of the ticket lobbies to behind the counters.
"To me that's going to make a huge impression," Wienert said. "It will eliminate the need to be herded onto the buses."
Travelers still have a mixed impression of the airport.
Robert Brindza, who serves in the Army at Schofield Barracks, said he's seen some improvements in the type of food offered and the overall look of the airport in about 20 trips to the airport in his six years in the Islands.
"It's for the better," Brindza said. "There's a lot more available for passengers to get something to eat or buy gifts before they leave."
But he and his family ran out of options when they cleared security and then waited for an hour for another traveler to arrive. "Once you get out of there was no place to get food," he said and they wandered around until they found a new Starbuck's outside the overseas ticket lobby.
"This Starbuck's was a lifesaver," he said. It was the sixth Starbuck's to open at Honolulu's airport in recent years, and one more is scheduled.
But Brindza was impressed with the people who work there and getting smoothly through long lines. "Even when the lines are clear out to here sometimes, it still seems to go fast."
His sister-in-law, Patti Monaco, was visiting from Western Pennsylvania. She was wowed by the overall garden atmosphere once they got clear of the jetways. "It's smaller than I thought but it's beautiful," she said. "It really makes you feel like you're someplace different."
State Deputy Transportation Director Brian Sekiguchi acknowledges that many of the changes at the airport have been a long time coming. "But we are trying our best to move these projects forward as quickly as possible," he said.
Sekiguchi said the airport is moving away from dependence on the Wiki Wiki buses, which he said were put in place in February 1970 as "an interim measure." More than three decades later, travelers are still complaining about the hot, slow, outdated buses.
"The buses were never intended to operate for as long as they have and that has been part of our challenge," Sekiguchi said. "Not only are they somewhat inconvenient and uncomfortable, they also put a huge strain on our building structure due to their weight and level of activity."
Building a people mover and buying modern air-conditioned buses should help, and the buses will continue to provide transportation at curbside between terminals.
Some of the changes are smaller and less expensive. The state just started running a free six-person electric cart to help folks get around the airport who may have trouble on their own.
Security calls for travelers to arrive at the airport at least two hours early for most overseas flights.
With airlines charging more and offering less for food, the concessions have become more important. HMSHost Corp. recently extended its lease with Honolulu's airport through 2014 with a commitment to invest at least $8 million over that time.
"We have to do something that makes the experience better," said spokeswoman Rana Florida. "Airlines are cutting back."
She said the company wants to offer travelers a place to relax, where they can "get a healthy meal, get a great meal. We want to offer them choices."
The company's Hawai'i district general manager, Alan Yamamoto, said the company aims for a balance of top brands like the ever-present Starbuck's, Quizno's and the popular Cold Stone Creamery ice cream stores but still offer local flavors, such as the Island Brews and Pizza restaurant that will open in two places in the airport, serving locally brewed beer and casual food.
In the next few years, travelers can also expect to see a Gordon Biersch, a Mexican restaurant, maybe even a fine-dining restaurant with regional cuisine trailblazer and chef Alan Wong, Yamamoto said.
The company also is talking with rock-n-roll guitarist/restaurateur Sammy Hagar possibly opening a Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill. Hagar, who lives on Maui, has told Yamamoto that he's interested and would be looking to donate some of the proceeds from the restaurant to local charities.
But for all the improvements and changes, visitors often rely on the treatment they get from just one person to form a lasting impression.
German visitor Gunter Geist, of Wurzburg, came away angry when the United Airlines agent who checked him in told him his bag was two pounds over the 50-pound limit.
"I was mad," he said, so he responded by pulling out enough souvenirs to drop the weight.
"I loved Hawai'i, but I don't come again," he said. "I've been here seven times but this was the last time."
Reach Robbie Dingeman at email@example.com.