Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Remember 9-11-01

Hawaii tour
flights laid low
by slowdown

Demand for an aerial view of the
islands drops after attacks

By Lyn Danninger

Hawaii's air tour companies have been virtually grounded, some literally, by the aftermath of last week's terrorist attacks.

For flight schools, it's been especially tough. The Federal Aviation Administration has yet to grant approval for training or recreational flights.

Stephanie and Wallace Suenaga run three aviation businesses out of their Lagoon Drive premises. For now, they are only able to take on a fraction of their normal business.

Oahu Aviation Flight School, a business the couple bought last year, would normally run around 15 flights per day for students and licensed pilots who rent one of their nine planes for recreational flights. For the moment, the business is grounded, Stephanie Suenaga said.

Another of the Suenaga's companies, Air Tours Hawaii, which runs aerial tours for tourists, is also grounded.

The couple's third company, Commercial Flyer, which handles skydiving customers and charter flights, has been allowed to take on only charter work since last week.

The company was able to pick up some charter business, mostly transporting people who were stranded on neighbor islands. Now, with most people at their destinations, the business has slowed, said Stephanie Suenaga.

"So out of the three companies, only one is partially operating," she said.

The uncertainty makes it difficult to predict what will happen in the future and how easy it will be to recover.

Suenaga is also thinking about when she would need to lay off employees if things don't improve, she said.

"We don't want to start losing employees but we can't go past (today) like this," she said. "It will be really bad for all of us but the difference is that the big guys will get some kind of federal help."

Suenaga's thoughts are echoed by John Callahan, president of Honolulu-based Eco Air Tours Hawaii. Callahan has been running a nine-passenger aircraft on air tours and charters for eight years.

Normally clients are visitors wanting to take air tours or charter his plane to get to a neighbor island faster.

Callahan said business dropped off immediately after last week's disaster.

"It's like the phone just discontinued," he said. "Normally I'd run about five or six flights a week."

Helicopter businesses have also seen a big drop in business.

Though allowed to fly, most are dependent on visitor business and have seen big drops in bookings. There are about 30 commercial helicopter companies statewide.

Richard Schuman, owner of Honolulu-based Makani-Kai Helicopters Ltd., is grateful he has some non-visitor related work.

"We support Hawaiian Electric and also shuttle crews to the Ehime Maru (salvage effort)so for us we are pretty much back to normal," he said.

Blue Hawaiian, a tour business with 17 helicopters and 130 employees on spread between Maui and the Big Island, has seen its business drop by about 50 percent, said Dave Chevalier, who owns the company with his wife.

"We were closed for four days but business has been down since then. It's about half of what we would normally expect right now," he said.

Still, Chevalier is optimistic things could improve in a week or so. In the meantime, he has been cutting employee hours but does not anticipate layoffs.

Most of the company's business comes from visitors from North America, he said.

"We are not as dependent on Japanese business as Oahu so it's really a different scenario," he said. "I see this as a bump in the road."

Makani-Kai's Schuman is similarly optimistic about the future if things return to normal.

"My personal opinion is that it will be slow like during Desert Storm but we will rebound," he said.

If, on the other hand, the large airlines drastically cut back flights to Hawaii, Schuman is not as optimistic.

"We're so dependent on the big carriers to bring people in," he said. "If they fail, everyone else down the line fails. There's no doubt."

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