State and county officials are working with the federal government to get a five-year exemption from meeting security standards at Kona International Airport in order to reopen an international inspection facility that’s been closed since 2010.
The lack of a U.S. Customs facility is hampering county efforts to lure international flights to Kona, reducing the number of Japanese tourists flying directly to the Big Island. U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently has limited staff, screening general aviation and cruise ship arrivals and some cargo shipments to the area.
At issue is the airport’s design, featuring iconic tiki-hut style outdoor passenger holding areas that convey a Hawaiian atmosphere, but do little to address Customs’ security concerns at the airport.
The airport does not meet Customs’ airport technical design standards for passenger processing facilities, said Brian Humphrey, director of field operations for Customs San Francisco office, in a Dec. 24 letter to Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi.
“Unfortunately, I cannot approve the request for a five-year exemption,” Humphrey said in the letter, adding he’s referred the matter to Customs headquarters.
“Since the 2010 termination of international commercial arrivals in Kona, (Customs and Border Protection) has maintained a small staff to perform these limited operations while the majority of the pre-2010 staff has been reassigned to other locations at agency expense,” Humphrey said.
A temporary practice of having charter flights reimburse Customs for flying agents from Honolulu to Kona to staff the customs gateway there was ended by the agency in 2012.
Kenoi remains optimistic. He told West Hawaii Today on Monday that he met briefly last week with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who assigned the topic to an assistant secretary. He also discussed it with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat representing Hawaii’s 2nd District, who sits on the Homeland Security Committee, and other members of the congressional delegation. Kenoi was in Washington for the United States Conference of Mayors winter meeting.
“We got a little further. We have a contact,” Kenoi said. “We know it’s on someone’s desk. It’s in Washington, D.C. The more people we can talk to to get it off the desk and start making progress, the better off we will be.”
Kenoi praised Gov. Neil Abercrombie and state Department of Transportation Deputy Director for Airports Ford Fuchigami for working on the issue.
DOT spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter said the state wants the five-year extension to give it time to design a facility and new airport procedures to meet the federal requirements. The upgrades are estimated to cost about $35 million.
“It’s a very important issue for us,” Sluyter said. “We feel there is a demand for direct flights coming in from Japan to Kona.”
Tourism officials have previously said the inability to sell direct flights to the Big Island can have economic impacts on hotels and businesses.
Thanks to continually growing numbers of Japanese arrivals — who often plan multi-island itineraries anyway — to the state, Hawaii Island is still seeing more tourists from the country than it did last year, with about 8 percent more tourists from the country in the first half of 2013, compared to the first half of 2012.
But, Big Island Visitors Bureau Executive Director Ross Birch said, the number of Japanese visitors staying only on Hawaii Island was down 17 percent compared to 2010, the last time Japan Airlines brought a direct flight to the island. If those direct flights came back, Hawaii Island may get more visitors, but would almost certainly at least gain more nights of hotel occupancy by the visitors who came here first, rather than Oahu.