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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

State needs reliable air service to Kalaupapa

The remote peninsula of Kalaupapa has always been difficult to reach, or to leave.

It was once used as a place to lock away Hansen's disease patients in enforced, lifelong isolation.

Obviously, that's no longer acceptable. Reliable, affordable transportation for Kalaupapa's 19 patients who travel to O'ahu for advanced medical treatment is a necessity. Taxpayers foot the bill, which was $108,000 last year.

Unfortunately, those costs are likely to rise dramatically or travel cut back unless the state takes action.

Pacific Wings, the only commercial air carrier serving Kalaupapa, raised its round-trip airfare to the peninsula a 10-minute flight from topside Moloka'i to a breathtaking $492. Pacific Wings CEO Greg Kahlstorf argues that the fares more closely reflect the true cost of doing business.

That may be. But for those who live and work in Kalaupapa, those prices are an unreasonable burden. The only other regular option is a more than three-mile climb up and down a switchback trail, on foot or by mule.

Given the cultural and historical importance of Kalaupapa a national park like no other reliable, cost-effective access to the area must be available, for residents, health and park workers and visitors alike.

The state Department of Health, a major Pacific Wings customer, should negotiate with other carriers, reorganizing its patients' travel schedules if necessary to get a deal that works. The state should also consider seeking contracts for secure charter flights, which are less convenient to arrange but can be less expensive per passenger.

Another reason to act is the uncertainty caused by a bitter, ongoing dispute between Kahlstorf and the state Department of Transportation, which prompted Kahlstorf to first suspend service, and then raise the fares.

Kahlstorf has accused DOT of unreasonable and costly interference with his company, including alleged incidents of physical assault by security officers. He also complained that the state does not appreciate Pacific Wings, which does not take federal subsidies and previously charged about $200 or less round trip.

As a result, he said, "we're no longer doing anything beyond what we're legally required to do." Aside from fare increases, it also means canceling cargo service and use of the airline's wheelchair ramp.

Whatever Kahlstorf's reasons, he has the right to do what he believes to be in the best interests of Pacific Wings.

But where those interests conflict with Kalaupapa's, the state's obligation is clear: It must find another way to keep one of the state's most treasured places open and accessible.