LIHUE — Who is responsible for regulating the number of passenger flights that arrive on the island every day? That was one of the main questions brought up at a recent County Council meeting during a discussion of the Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan 2019-2021, which aims to mitigate the effects of “overtourism.”
The answer is the airline companies.
Additionally, under the “sovereignty and use of airspace” code, a citizen of the U.S. has a “public right of transit through the navigable airspace.”
Denise Wardlow, general manager of the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas, who is playing an integral part in the strategic plan, said that, in their research, it was discovered that companies aren’t necessarily aligned with “us,” and few reach out to the community and take the impact of more arrivals on the island into consideration.
“It’s quite outrageous that people are making decisions without us,” said former mayor and councilmember JoAnn Yukimura during the meeting.
Nearly 1.4 million visitors arrived on Kauai last year, and more than 28,000 are on the island on any given day, according to statistics from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
The latter number is determined by a formula that takes into consideration length of stay, which has been increasing in the past few decades due to a rise in repeat inventory, such as condos, timeshares and transient vacation rentals, said Sue Kanoho of the Kauai Visitors Bureau.
Southwest Airlines is one company, however, that reached out to the community prior to determining their Kauai-bound flights, according to Brad Hawkins, senior adviser of communications for Southwest, who said community outreach efforts were orchestrated that consisted of meetings with people across the islands years before service started.
“We heard consistently across our conversations with locals of the hope and need for a competitive choice in interisland travel,” Hawkins said. “We have answered that in a relevant way that shows our commitment to the communities across the Islands, including Kauai County.”
And while Hawkins agreed that, within the U.S., it’s the carrier that “determines how frequently a market is served,” Southwest Airlines did make a concerted effort to connect with the community beforehand.
The company’s plan, as previously announced, is to have interisland service to and from Honolulu four times a day, each aircraft accommodating up to 175 passengers. Lihue is also expected to have one flight a day to and from either San Jose or Oakland, also with 175 seats, according to Hawkins.
When asked how Hawaiian Airlines determines the number of flights arriving on the island, Tara Shimooka, external communications manager at Hawaiian Airlines, provided a blog post from the company’s website. Among the elements the company takes into account, according to the post, are “reading the data” and “predicting the future,” primarily studying economic components.
“There is a multitude of factors that go into our decision to launch a new route, including market size, connectivity and demand, to name a few,” Shimooka said. “We’ve been serving the Kauai community for nearly 70 years, and have a strong sales presence locally.”
Hawaiian Air also co-hosts an annual luncheon with the Kauai Chamber of Commerce.
As of August, Hawaiian Airlines has 24 inbound interisland flights per day to Lihue, each with 128 seats, and two flights from the mainland every day, each with 189 seats, according to Shimooka.
The state Department of Transportation’s responsibility in these matters include coordinating gate and ticket counter availability with airlines for flight arrivals and departures. The DOT also works with airlines to manage other details like operations, but if an airline wants to start a new route, it “does not dictate the approval or denial,” according to the governor’s office.
Ways in which the state can step in to help with visitor impact, however, are through other actions, such as developing the new Haena State Park Master Plan.
“It is the first plan that envisioned reducing the number of visitors in an area. It’s a new system designed to protect the environment and community interests while supporting the visitor industry,” said Gov. David Ige.
“Clearly, too many people in a spot as beautiful as Haena is just not good for the environment and residents and visitors alike. The solutions aren’t easy, but the changes represent a chance to manage tourism more effectively.”
Ige also said that new flights aren’t just a product of market demand by visitors to the islands. It’s also about creating options for local residents to travel interisland or out of state.
“When Southwest Airlines entered the market, many local residents were excited because it brought pricing competition and more choices,” he said.
It’s possible, however, that flight demand could change as counties begin to look more closely at regulating short-term rentals, Ige said.
Curtailing illegal TVRs is one thing that the strategic plan addresses in its first year, whereby the team supports the county Planning Department’s efforts to identify and eliminate them.
“Hawaii is one of the most-dreamed-about destinations in the world,” Ige said. “Like other must-visit locations, we are considering ways to ensure that the environment and quality of life in our islands are preserved as more travelers are able to visit and experience the people, place and culture that make Hawaii unique.”
Alaska, American, United and Delta airlines, as well as Westjet, are other companies that operate on Kauai, according to the state’s Lihue Airport website.