Mokulele Airlines Chief Executive Officer Ron Hansen has been familiar with Kalaeloa Airport for more than 50 years because as an Air Force pilot at Hickam Air Force Base, he used to do touch-and-gos at the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station.
On Tuesday, Hansen was back at Kalaeloa with Mokulele, a local commuter carrier, for the first-ever commercial service from the West Oahu airport, which could mark a change in how some Leeward residents fly between the islands.
"Fifteen years to this very day, the base was shut down, and how ironic we have an airline that's going to regenerate some of the air traffic that we need so very desperately," said Evelyn Souza, chairwoman of the Makakilo/Kapolei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board. "It would be such a convenience for us on the west side to come here and not have to go through TSA (Transportation Security Administration screening), not have to worry about parking and not have to worry about the hassles that you have at Honolulu International Airport. That's a gift."
Souza, a 42-year Makakilo resident, is hoping that Mokulele can help lead the way in infusing the area's economy, which was hurt by the base's shutdown.
"This is the rise of the phoenix from the ashes because Mokulele is now an economic engine, and now maybe other people will follow suit and it will be revitalized," she said.
Hansen said he's beginning gradually with three flights a day each way between Kalaeloa and Kahului but plans to expand to Molokai; Lanai; Kapalua, Maui; and possibly Hana, Maui.
That would be welcome news to Robert Stephenson, president and CEO of the Molokai Chamber of Commerce. Stephenson attended the event at Kalaeloa that included a Hawaiian blessing, entertainment and remarks from airline, local and state officials. Mokulele already flies between Honolulu Airport and Molokai, so adding Kalaeloa would be a bonus.
"Having Mokulele fly to Molokai from Kalaeloa just seems a natural fit because we have so many families on Molokai that have families on the Waianae Coast, and they'll be able to travel with a lot more ease," Stephenson said. "They don't have to worry about traffic on the H-1, don't have to worry about TSA. It just seems a real natural fit."
Mokulele, which flies nine-seat Cessna Grand Caravan turboprops, flew one round trip early Tuesday morning before pausing at about 11 a.m. for its official grand-opening celebration. The flights take about 55 minutes each way.
The first "official" flight at 1 p.m. from Kalaeloa to Kahului included three passengers in addition to airline officials and invited guests who made up the remainder of the manifest.
Jerry Riverstone, a solar consultant for Haleakala Solar, was one of the passengers who jumped on the $99 promotional round-trip fare.
"I live out here on the west side, and I'm going over to Maui for some work and I thought I'd give it a try," he said. "If everything goes smoothly, it will be very convenient to fly from the west side over to Maui."
Riverstone said he has no reservations about flying on a small plane and was looking forward to checking out the scenery since the plane flies at a lower altitude than larger aircraft.
"I've flown in Alaska on tiny bush planes and in Nicaragua in little Cessnas, so this plane's not going to be that small," he said. "I've flown in planes with only one passenger and a pilot, so it's hard to get smaller than that."
Ilima Maiava, who was traveling with his 18-month-old daughter, Poanu, said his father had texted him about the introduction of service from Kalaeloa and he said the timing worked out perfectly because he had been planning on traveling to Maui anyway to help his mother.
"We've been to Molokai a bunch of times on Mokulele, and this is my daughter's fourth time on this small plane and I trust the pilots," said Maiava, who works at Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point. "I'd much rather drive out west than drive into town."
He said his daughter, who sits on his lap as a nonpaying passenger, loves the view from the plane.
"It's like a 360-degree view," he said. "It keeps her occupied."
State Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kalaeloa-Makakilo), who lives in Kalaeloa near the airport, said when he moved to the area from town in 2002, it was "the wild, wild west."
"But it's been very exciting to be part of this," he said while addressing a crowd of about 100 at the special ceremony. "It's very exciting to be part of this community out here, and now we're adding an airline, that missing piece of the puzzle, where everything is coming together out here.
"In the words of one of my favorite American icons, Mr. Fred Rogers, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.'"