KOA still seeks direct international flights


Kona International Airport hasn’t been able to accept a direct, international charter flight since last year after federal officials denied the state Department of Transportation’s request to continue allowing private companies to reimburse the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for flying agents from Honolulu to Kona to staff the customs gateway there.

Five airports across the country have been allowed to operate with those reimbursable agreements, DOT spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter said. Customs and Border Patrol didn’t select Kona the last time around, for reasons that are still somewhat unclear, she added.

“They do have some issues (with the building),” which is actually a tent, Sluyter said. “We’re trying to find out what we need to do to be more competitive (with other airports applying for the reimbursable agreements).”

Three direct charter flights came to Kona International Airport in early 2012, she said. A company requested to bring a fourth flight in December and that was denied.

“We’re still working with our congressional team, reaching out to Customs and Border Patrol,” Sluyter said.

DOT officials, along with tourism industry experts, met with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat representing Hawaii’s 2nd District, earlier this week to make the case for approving the DOT’s application. Gabbard, a freshman legislator, sits on the Homeland Security Committee. Gabbard’s spokeswoman was unable to provide a comment from the representative Thursday or Friday.

A Customs and Border Patrol official did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the situation.

Tourism officials said the inability to sell direct flights to the Big Island can have economic impacts on hotels and businesses.

Thanks to continually growing numbers of Japanese arrivals — who often plan multi-island itineraries anyway — to the state, Hawaii Island is still seeing more tourists from the country than it did last year, with about 8 percent more tourists from the country in the first half of this year, compared to the first half of last year.

But, Big Island Visitors Bureau Executive Director Ross Birch said, the number of Japanese visitors staying only on Hawaii Island is down 17 percent compared to 2010, the last time Japan Airlines brought a direct flight to the island. If those direct flights came back, Hawaii Island may get more visitors, but would almost certainly at least gain more nights of hotel occupancy by the visitors who came here first, rather than Oahu.

Vacation companies in Japan requested to bring eight direct flights to Kona this year. The request was cut in half after learning the airport could no longer receive such flights, Birch said, and officials are working quickly to try to be able to accommodate those four remaining flight requests. One charter flight did come to Kona, he said, but had to stop in Honolulu to allow passengers to clear customs.

Birch said federal officials haven’t explained exactly what disqualified Kona airport from being selected again. At least three of the five airports that did get the designation for this year are in Texas, he said. Airports that are able to guarantee regular arrivals seemed to have an advantage in the application process, he said.

Federal budget cutbacks may be exacerbating the problem, Birch added.

“There’s basically a no-fly (order) from the federal government for employees because of sequestration,” he said.

That means the DOT and tourism officials have been unable to bring Customs and Border Patrol officials to Kona to explain what changes need to be made to improve the customs gateway here, he said. “We want to get someone out here. We would even pay to get someone out here. They aren’t allowed to do that.”