Flying To the Friendly Island of Moloka’i

By: Category: Airports Around the WorldHawaii

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The Hawaiian island of Moloka’i is home to a pair of airports with commercial airline service. Known as the “friendly isle”, it is inhabited by close to 7,500 people and does not attract anywhere near the tourist traffic that the nearby islands of O’ahu and Maui do. Travel by sea is a limited option, so aviation plays a key role in the transportation of passengers and freight between the other Hawaiian Islands and Moloka’i.  Three airlines serve the island, and all three have different styles and levels of service. Even the two airports, both of which are owned and operated by the State of Hawaii, serve different needs of the island.

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The geography of the island dictates how each airport serves different locales. The northern and eastern sides of Moloka’i are moist, with tall volcanic peaks that inhibit road construction. In fact, there are few improved roads on this part of the island, except along the immediate coastline.

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The west end of the island is more arid, but the topography is gentler, and offers a few more roads on which to navigate on.

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The largest and “primary” airport (identifier is MKK) is located in the town of Ho’olehua in the western center of the island. Depending on who you read, it is referred to as either the Ho’olehua, the Kaunakakai (after the island’s largest town), or just the Moloka’i airport. Ho’olehua is located away from the highest volcanic peaks, and while in the west-central highlands, the airport is easily accessible by car. Its’ sister airport to the east sits on a rocky ocean shoreline, and thus the Ho’olehua/Kaunakakai/Moloka’i airport is sometimes described as being “topside” (instead of “surfside”, I suppose).

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All three airlines serve this primary airport, and although the terminal is half open-air and has only a pair of boarding gates, it does have TSA screening and houses the one auto rental agency at the airport. This airport is a main departure point for medivac flights heading outbound to other islands with larger hospitals too. For this article, I’ll use “Moloka’i/MKK” as the name for this airport.

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The island’s other airport is on a point of land near the small town of Kalaupapa. The Kalaupapa airport (identifier LUP) serves the town, as well as the tourist destination of the National Park Service’s Kalaupapa National Historic Park, which is the site of a settlement of banished people suffering from Hansen’s disease from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s. It is a remote region of the island, on the northern shore where many jagged volcanic peaks drop abruptly into the ocean. The airport is situated on a point of land that juts out from a valley, nestled against volcanic peaks. A popular tour consists of a mule ride down a steep, winding path, followed by an airplane flight out of the valley’s airport. This airport also acts as a “reliever” airport in support of the larger Moloka’i/MKK facility.

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The largest aircraft that serves Moloka’i are the 48–seat ATR-42-500 turboprops of ‘Ohana by Hawaiian Airlines. The aircraft are pressurized, seating is two by two rows, and has overhead bins that can carry smaller carry-on items. Drink service is offered by the flight attendant, even though the trips are no more than 30 minutes at the most. The airline’s mission, in its own words, is “The name ‘Ohana, the Hawaiian word for family, says it all: keeping in touch with our roots and bringing people together from across the Islands”. From Moloka’i/MKK, you can fly to the nearby island of Lana’i, to Maui’s Kahului airport (OGG), and to Honolulu International Airport (HNL). Both Honolulu and Maui airports have nonstop jet service to the conterminous U.S. and Alaska; Honolulu attracts flights to and from Asia and Australia too. ‘Ohana is operated by Empire Airlines.

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Mokulele Airlines operates a fleet of 9-passenger Cessna Grand Caravans, a single engine turboprop. The airline boasts that it is one of only a few that “puts two pilots on every flight for added safety” and “is a local, family-owned and operated company dedicated to serving the State’s smaller, more scenic airports. Our pilots, agents, and employees are proud to share the beauty of the islands with our passengers. On Mokulele, every seat is a window seat and every passenger experiences first-class comfort”. There’s no flight attendant or overhead lockers, lots of windows, and ”well-behaved” pet dogs and cats are welcome aboard the cabin. Local music is offered, with headset jacks for each seat too. Mokulele “Hopper” flights operate between Moloka’i/MKK airport and both Honolulu and Kalaeloa on O’ahu, Kahului and Kapalua airports on Maui, Kona – on the Big Island of Hawai’i – and between Moloka’i/MKK and its’ sister airport of Kalaupapa.

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The third airline, Makani Kai Air, also operates Cessna Grand Caravans. As much an on-demand charter operator (using Caravans and a Piper Navajo) as it is a scheduled airline, owner Richard Schuman states that “We’re here for the people of Moloka’i. We don’t go to Kaua’i. We don’t go to Lana’i or the Big Island. You are our focus and our reason to fly. We promise to do our best to make your life more convenient”. It advertises “$50 online fare, every seat, every flight, every day” between topside Moloka’i/MKK and either Honolulu or Kahului, Maui. Makani Kai Air flies scheduled service between Moloka’i/MKK and Honolulu International, as well as between Kahului, Maui. It also operates to/from Honolulu and Kalaupapa (LUP), and between the sister airports of “topside” Moloka’i/MKK and Kalaupapa. The latter service is among the shortest scheduled airline flights in the world, slightly shorter than 9 miles in distance and 10 minutes in the air between airports.

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The island of Moloka’i’s ferry service isn’t very convenient, so air travel is quite important for business and leisure travelers alike. The three airlines that serve the pair of airports provide an important link to the rest of the state, and ultimately the world. One airline – ‘Ohana – is geared for connecting to Hawaiian Airlines and its world-wide route system. Mokulele Airlines seems to focus on connecting the entire state of Hawaii with Moloka’i, while Makani Aki Air focuses on even shorter-range adjacent island destinations. All three strive to provide friendly service for the “friendly isle” too.

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