Closing Oahu airport as Hawaii struggles could slow tourism

A newspaper poll that sampled public opinion on Hawaii’s economic prospects stressed the importance of travel to the state’s recovery from the “April trough” that slammed tourism and business transportation and triggered major statewide job losses as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. “The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization last month forecast that it will take more than three years—until after 2023—for the state economy to regain the level it was at last year or even the year before,” the Star Advertiser reported on October 20.

Against that tenuous but hopeful backdrop, it would be a “travesty” if the Hawaii Department of Transportation acted on its intention to end its lease of Dillingham Airfield (Kawaihapai Airport) from the U.S. Army four years early, ending its run as a general aviation airport and shutting down 11 businesses that inject $12 million into the local economy, said state Sen. Gil Riviere (D-District 23) in a recent broadcast interview.

“There’s just so much potential. We’ve got to save it,” he said.

The aviation sector has rallied around the airport since the state revealed plans to seek an early end to its airport lease that would otherwise expire in 2025.

But now the harsh impact of the pandemic on Hawaii has raised Dillingham Airfield’s profile far beyond the airport boundary as the community at large pins its optimism for recovery on drawing visitors back to Hawaii’s renowned attractions for vacationers.

However, time to save Dillingham Airfield—known to backers as “Northern Oahu’s Gateway to the Sky”—is growing short. The scheduled closing date is June 30, 2021; the Save Dillingham Airfield support group recently warned that state officials plan to take preliminary steps toward the shutdown in January.

Riviere believes that the closure plan undervalues the airport’s contribution to the community’s well-being and its starring role in Hawaii tourism.

“This is the number one drop zone in the world. More people jump out of airplanes at Dillingham than any place else in the world, so it’s a travesty,” Riviere said.

Melissa McCaffrey, AOPA Western Pacific regional manager, said the next eight to 12 weeks will be critical for airport advocacy.

“For more than nine months now, AOPA and the Save Dillingham Airfield group have tried to provide solutions to the Hawaii Department of Transportation, all of which include preserving the airfield as a joint civilian/military-use facility. Unfortunately, Hawaii DOT has continued to move forward with their plans to prematurely exit out of their FAA Airport Improvement Program obligations and the lease with the U.S. Army, inevitably killing off the businesses and jobs at the now-thriving airfield,” she said.

McCaffrey urged aviation supporters “to be geared up and ready to assist” on several possible fronts, perhaps including submitting testimony to support a legislative strategy, contacting elected officials to advocate for the airport, and joining the airport-support group.

Riviere, in his news interview, added that despite the short timeline, he remained upbeat about the airport’s chances to survive. He said three management companies have been identified that could take over airport administration from the Department of Transportation, which runs Hawaii’s public airports, if the state wants to opt out.

Both the FAA and the military would have to sign off on any closure arrangements, which would require an ambitious project to restore the property to its original condition, he said.

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