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Has Kona Airport Finally Arrived? With Modernization Upgrades Complete, Director Still Envisions More

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An upgraded south terminal was one of several improvements to the airport that began in 2017. PC: DOT

After five years of major construction and millions of dollars in upgrades and additions, Ellison Onizuka International Airport at Keāhole is a different experience for the traveler than it was in 2017.

With the recent completion of the $58.7 million federal inspection services facility and the $8 million new agricultural inspection station ready to launch in November, the modernization project that began a half a decade ago will be complete – and the footprint of Kona’s quaint, outdoor airport forever changed.

But ask the Kona Airport District Manager, Chauncey Wong Yuen, if he think the work is done, he’ll tell you far from it.

“You know what I want?” Wong Yuen said on a recent tour of the refurbished transportation hub, which welcomed the return of direct flights from Tokyo Aug. 2. “I want a swimming pool at the level between the jetways so people can have their drinks between the jetways and sit down at the pool, and then go shower up and jump on their plane and go to New York or whatever.”

Whoa.

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But that is just part of the director’s vision. Wong Yuen knows more pressing fixes are on the docket before swimming pools, like upgrading the bathrooms, which will take place next. But he’s adamant lap swimming and lounging by the runway isn’t a pipedream.

“It is really realistic,” Wong Yuen said. “JFK has already done it. Singapore has done it. There’s this place in the Dominican Republic, they’ve done it, that’s another example. So it’s doable. You just have to have the courage.”

Uniquely outdoor and Hawaiian, Kona’s airport offers a magical atmosphere to many travelers. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

First things first: The modernization upgrades are all but complete.

The multi-phased project that broke ground in 2017 took on three main objectives. First, it wanted to improve the south terminal and connect it with the north terminal from the inside, so people could easily access the other from inside the airport. It accomplished that phase with the completion of the newly renovated terminal.

A second goal was to improved inline service, so it added self-check machines and an inline baggage system so bags were no longer inspected in the lobby.

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That was also a goal of moving the ag inspection stations away from the inline service areas where they are now: To get it out of the lobby area and make the customer service experience more seamless.

The new ag inspection station will work adjacent the behind-the-scenes baggage service station so bags will be inspected one after the other, which is to say, away from the lobby where guests have to them inspected again for produce in line before boarding the plane.

“This is kind of a pilot project, if it is successful, the other airports will follow suit,” Wong Yuen said, looking at the giant warehouse. “If it goes all right, the rest of the airports can convert.”

Hawai’i Airport District Manager Chauncey Wong Yuen points out the new agricultural inspection station set to open in November. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

Kona airport a leader in modernization?

Strange as it may seem – the airport’s reputation is one with a laid back, small island atmosphere – that is the case. If the ag inspection functions like it’s supposed to, which is more officially and out of sight, other island airports will look to install similar inspection facilities.

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The third goas was adding the $58.7 million federal inspection station that opened in October, which guarantees Kona can keep one of its main economic engines, international tourism.

That facility, in the words of Department of Transportation Director Jade Butnay, makes Kona a “critical” second entry point into Hawai‘i for anyone visiting from a foreign country and opens capacity majorly for foreign travelers landing in the islands.

Honolulu serves as the main hub. But the state promised to construct the federal inspection center back in 2016 as a requirement with Customs and Border Protection as a stipulation to ensure Kona could resume hosting international travel. Prior to the resumption being granted, the last regularly scheduled international flight to Kona was in October 2010.

The new south terminal pictured from outside. PC: DOT

To give a snapshot of what international travel means to the state economically, in 2019, the final year before the pandemic shut travel down, Japanese visitors spent $1.03 billion here.

As many as 2,500 international visitors arrived at KOA per week on Hawaiian Airlines and Japan Airlines flights from Japan back then.

Now, with the federal inspection building fully operational, where those visitors are processed once they touch down, international travel can only grow. It’s why Gov. David Ige described Kona’s airport as “a new port of entry” into the state and country during a recent visit.

“It’s just the beginning,” Ige said of the economic impact international travel will have on Hawai‘i Island.

It could just be the beginning of Kona’s airport improvements, too.

Touch up work, so to speak, will be taking place soon. Bathrooms will begin to be renovated next and officials are beginning a design plan to enclose the lobby area in the airport where the huts and benches near the gates are. The hut area wouldn’t be fully enclosed – it would still keep the outdoor feel and wouldn’t boast a roof – but glass walls would be erected around it so it could be airconditioned.

“You’d still be able to go outside and walk around,” Wong Yuen said.

That design plan could take a year to 18 months to complete. After which, the Airport Division – which raises and spends it’s own funds on projects – would work on funding its construction.

That’s a under-realized component of the airport: state airports largely fund themselves.

While the Airports Division is under the purview of the state DOT, airports aren’t allocated state money. They generate their own funds through user fees from airlines, private businesses, duty free shopping and concessions – hence the $10 hotdog. Oddly enough, however, airports do need state Legislature approval to actually spend the money they raise.

Hawai‘i airports are also eligible to collect federal grant money should they pursue it. But in regards to the recent federal inspection station at KOA, it was largely funded by airport-generated money.

“People don’t know that,” Wong Yuen said.

There are other upgrades the director wants to see to come to fruition before he can say Kona’s airport has fully arrived as an major – or nearly major – international flight hub. No matter what happens, it will remain an outdoor, island airport, which comes with its limitations, quirks and charms.

Which is fine with some travelers.

Three-time Kona visitors Marc Bromberg and Debbie Whitehead, from Colorado, said they love the outdoor feel of Kona’s airport. The moment you get off the plane, you’re on the tarmac and can see the ocean and palm trees swaying.

“You think, ‘I’ve really gotten away, I’m in paradise,'” Bromberg said. “That’s just a really cool open-air Hawaiian feel. I love it actually. I’m not missing an enclosed formal mall airport at all.”

Both said they’d love to see amenity upgrades – more retail or restaurants and spruced up bathrooms, which are coming, but were adamant that the airport keep its aura.

“There’s almost a vibe of an old train station,” Whitehead said, adding that she hopes the airport, after the upgrades, “keeps its uniqueness.”

Offering more shaded areas is an immediate improvement project airport officials will undertake. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

“It’s nostalgic and charming,” she said.

Wong Yuen knows that no matter what upgrades the future holds, the outdoor footprint will remain. Weather alone takes a toll on the airport’s equipment, which needs constant upkeep.

“I’m going to be honest and say a lot more needs to happen because we’re still an outdoor airport,” the director said, getting back to the question of whether the airport has finally arrived. “We’re not going to have that kind of experience that everybody else has in an indoor terminal. People are largely forgiving of the conditions here. They are grateful to be in the outdoors, sunshine, they can lie in the grass.”

In fact, among his many visions, he’d like to enhance that outdoor theme.

“I’d like to have more grass so people can picnic more,” he said. “People have already determined that this is an outdoor space.”

In the meantime, other immediate improvement that will take place is shading the new walkway between the north and south terminals inside the airport. Another long-term vision is adding a private hotel chain on the land across the street from the rental car companies. The director has been in contact with national chains, who have expressed interest.

“The private sector moves fast,” he said.

And then there’s the swimming pool. How’s would that be for an outdoor international airport experience? Check in, drop your bags, jump in and “just soak.”

“That’s what I want,” Wong Yuen said. “I tell you what.”

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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