Valley Isle popularity
weighs on airport

Tourism officials say rumors of
problems are overblown, but they
are working on calming crowds

Direct flights from the mainland have made Maui's Kahului Airport so busy that visitor industry officials worry the crowds and the waits may discourage return visits.

The Maui Visitors Bureau is taking up the challenge and working with the state Airports Division on plans to ease the pain and keep up the gain brought by the Valley Island's popularity.

Recently there has been talk of incoming aircraft having to unload their passengers on the concrete and have them walk to the terminal, something that used to be the norm, but is uncomfortable for travelers used to enclosed jetways.

And there have been rumors of incoming flights having faced lengthy waits to get to the gates and use the jetways.

There even have been reports of airlines being told they cannot make flights to Maui because the airport can't accommodate them.

Those are exaggerations, officials say, but there is some truth to the first two stories.

John Sakamoto, Maui district manager for the state airports system, said one aircraft this year had to offload passengers away from the terminal. That was back on March 22, a peak day that also had an aircraft having to wait on the tarmac before it could reach a gate.

"This is something we never want to see happen," he said.

Other Maui tourism officials denied the reports of airlines being turned away from the island.

But the industry admits airport crowding has become a significant issue.

It is all about the resurgence in tourism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a growth that really hit full swing this year and saw Maui in particular go through a big jump.

The MVB said it is delighted that the island is so attractive to visitors but recognizes that the growth brings problems.

By the end of this month, Kahului will have 169 flights a week leaving, up from 139 a year ago. That's an average of four or five flights a day at an airport that is close to capacity.

Add the new security checks and you have a lot of waiting and a lot of frustration, said Donn Takahashi, MVB chairman and vice president and regional director for Prince Resorts Hawaii.

The airport is handling 6 million or so passengers a year, he said.

"It's very, very frustrating for some who are leaving. It's their last impression of Maui," Takahashi said. Lines get long, people might even be waiting out in the sun, a result of the big jump in demand for direct access from the mainland to Kahului that Hawaiian and Aloha Airlines have helped generate.

It's great news that so many people want to come to Maui, he said, and "we're kind of thankful we have the demand," but if people go away sour about the process at the airport that's not good for the future, he said.

Marsha Wienert, who is leaving the post of executive director of the MVB to become Gov. Linda Lingle's liaison with the tourist industry, said the arrival experience is tough too, mostly because airlines like to deposit their passengers on Maui within a relatively short time frame, between mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

"It's not a good first impression. There are definitely challenges, but with every challenge there is an opportunity," she said.

Takahashi said the bureau is working on a hospitality program that would bring Hawaiian music, even a full Hawaiian show, to people waiting in line. And there are hopes that separate rest areas can be created for children and most family members to have a good time while one or two people wait in line for tickets he said.

Wienert met with musicians and said they were delighted at the idea of coming down and having fun with the tourists, she said.

Recent traffic numbers for Kahului are not available. The latest the Department of Transportation has are through June 2002, before the recent surge.

Total visitor arrivals by air as recorded by the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism give a clue, however. Through the first four months of this year Maui had 63,000 more visitors than in the same four months last year, a jump of 17.9 percent to 724,506 from 661,509. That is an average of more than 500 people a day.


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