By Joey Gerardi
Interview: Mokulele Airlines, The Local’s Airline
Those that have read my stories and interviews know that I love out of the way or unique airlines, especially the smaller ones that still fly the propeller-driven aircraft. So, I was overjoyed to hear that I would be heading out to the Hawaiian Islands to do something that has been on my bucket list for a long time; Island hopping on Mokulele Airlines Cessna 208s.
Although this is not a trip report, those will be coming soon. While in the islands I once again had the pleasure of talking with Keith Sisson, the Chief Marketing Officer of Southern Airways Express the company that owns Mokulele Airlines, about this very unique operation in the Hawaiian Islands.
AirlineGeeks (AG): Mokulele is a unique brand from its parent company Southern Airways Express. Other than the livery, will passengers find anything else different from these flights in Hawai’i and Southern Airways Express flights on the mainland?
Keith Sisson (KS): Very few things are different. We work hard to make sure our customer service, our airplanes, and our on-time performance are standard across all five U.S. time zones we serve. You might see a bit more casual vibe among our staff in Hawaii reflecting the realities of island life, but the professional way they do their job is no different.
(AG): I have heard that Hawai’i is all about the “Aloha spirit”, how does the airline try to incorporate this into their brand/livery?
(KS): The “Aloha Spirit” can mean so many things. For us, it means community engagement with our brand. We sponsor countless events and charitable fundraisers. Recently, we were the title sponsor for a food drive on Big Island that raised over 50,000 pounds of food for local food banks. We are also actively involved with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, a non-profit that provides legal assistance to families who are engaged in conflicts that involve protecting the culture and traditions of Hawaii’s indigenous people. As to the livery, you’ll certainly notice that the Magnolia leaf on Southern’s blue tails has been replaced with a local hibiscus on Mokulele’s red tails!
(AG): You mentioned Southern’s blue tails, I know you have said the Mokulele name will stay alive here in the islands, but what about the Mokulele livery, what will happen to that?
(KS): A very good question. We have begun a slow process of transforming the red and orange of the Mokulele brand to conform to the navy blue and powder blue that we have at Southern. There is not a time frame set to complete the transition. As planes get repainted or signs get updated, the blues will be used.
(AG): Every AvGeek loves a special livery, does Mokulele have any?
(KS): Actually, yes! N2150, this was the Big Island Air Tour Plane. That ceased operations as a result of COVID. We entered into an agreement to take the aircraft at that time. They used this aircraft for tours of Hawaii Island. The imagery on the aircraft is a combination of local folklore and popular attractions.
(AG): Kaua’i is the only major Hawaiian island you don’t currently fly to, presumably due to the distance and restrictions of single-engine aircraft over water. Do you see the airline adding flights to this island with your new Saab340 aircraft?
(KS): We fully intend on serving that island, though not with the Saab. Instead of the main city of Lihue, we are hoping to provide scheduled flights to an unserved airport on the other side of the island, Princeville. For this, we have looked at a few different options, including the King Air Super 200. We have also taken a close look at the Tecnam Traveler and even took a demo flight near our Palm Beach, Florida headquarters. The Traveler may be a good solution for this service. No decision is made, but hopefully, we may be able to make an announcement this fall.
(AG): How has the pandemic affected your inter-island operations?
(KS): One could write a book on this subject. Two airlines did not survive the travel restrictions imposed by the State. Mokulele operated flights to five of the six islands, even in the most restrictive time of inter-island air travel. We felt an obligation to keep the islands connected as we were moving state officials, health workers, and PPE throughout the state. It was a difficult time for all. We have rebounded and have been able to provide the inter-island community with the flights they need over the last several months.
(AG): Did any of the smaller islands/communities have their own set of health travel restrictions? How was this dealt with from a passenger’s perspective?
(KS): It was highly confusing for us as the airline, so I can’t even imagine how confusing it was for our passengers. There wasn’t a unified state-wide policy. Every county had its own set of rules, and they changed rather frequently. So, you could fly to a neighbor island and have one set of restrictions, then return to your home island and have a totally different set of rules. We did our best to adapt and to help our passengers adapt, I would never want to have to go through that again!
(AG): Inter-Island travel restrictions have finally begun to lift over the past month or so, have you seen this affect your bookings recently?
(KS): Inter-Island travel rebounded in late summer when the restrictions first lifted. We saw an overnight increase in bookings, but local traffic is still not back to 2019 levels. We believe this can be related to multiple factors, including more work-from-home jobs that do not require as much travel as in the past. Also, some of the older residents are still not comfortable returning to a pre-pandemic mindset.
(AG): Once the travel restrictions are fully lifted, do you see the airline expanding within the islands?
(KS): The only place we can expand to is Kauai—we already serve 10 commercial airports in the state! We hope we can make this happen this year, especially if the Asian countries lift the restrictions on returning residents who travel abroad. Many European countries have already done so. In Hawaii, Asian traffic is still down over 90% from 2019. So, we could be in for quite a boom when normalcy finally returns.
(AG): Many airlines have faced pilot shortages which have led to flight cancelations, has Mokulele faced any pilot shortages?
(KS): Absolutely not! At Southern Airways and Mokulele, we create pilots. We train the first officers and help them build hours until they are qualified to become captains for us. Then, we pass them along to SkyWest, our regional airline partner. When a young pilot starts with us, they have a fast pathway to the major airlines, so we have hundreds of pilots applying every month to join our team. Southern and Mokulele are uniquely positioned to survive and thrive during the worldwide pilot shortage—our passengers can book with confidence that they will have a plane and crew ready to go when they are!
(AG): What is Mokulele’s busiest route?
(KS): It is hard to say. Kapalua has become very popular as the resorts have reopened. Hilo to Kahului was underserved as a result of COVID and has been a very nice surprise. Molokai to Honolulu is quite popular during certain peak times of the week.
A Mokulele Cessna 208 on approach to Kahului Intl. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)(AG): Would you say you transport more locals or tourists on Mokulele?
(KS): Now that we have our interline agreements in place with United, Alaska, and American we are starting to see a better balance, but Mokulele was founded on the idea of serving the locals, which in Hawaiian is ‘Kamaaina’, and that is something we take great pride in.
Thank you again to Keith Sisson for talking to me about Mokulele Airlines’ unique inter-island operations. The trip reports for my Mokulele flights will be posted over the coming months.