Sunday, May 19, 2024

Airline struggling to fulfill its role as Molokai’s lifeline to health care

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Molokai’s only scheduled air service, Mokulele Airlines, is under fire from residents, doctors, and politicians, who say the service has been so unreliable that it has become a significant barrier to their health care.

Hawaii News Now Investigates questioned the airline’s top executive — who says reliability has been restored with additional aircraft.

HNN flew to Molokai on May 3 and experienced delays on both flights to and from the island. The flight to Kaunakakai was an hour and 45 minutes late, a good example of why residents say they can’t rely on Mokulele to get them to their Oahu and Maui doctors’ appointments on time.

Every morning at Mokulele’s Honolulu terminal, there is a parade of wheelchairs, walkers, and canes as Kupuna are hustled onto the aircraft that is literally their lifeline to health care.

HNN Investigates

“We don’t have any choice,” said Margaret Blunt, a Molokai resident who arrived in Honolulu on an afternoon flight. “If you have a doctor’s appointment, like I have tomorrow, you have to come the day before, and the flights — you know, sometimes you can’t even get a flight.”

A cancer survivor who also received therapy on Maui, Blunt said she is lucky she has family to stay with on Maui and Oahu. Many others do not, says retired Senior programs manager Kaui Manera.

“For those that have to pay for the room, the airfare, and the ground transportation, that can be costly,” she said. She’s aware of Kupuna, who gave up on their care because of the many barriers.

Lexis Kalawe, who said her grandfather died waiting for an air ambulance during a heart attack, explained in tears, “Our older people, they have to fly. They have to fly to Oahu to get checked. And it’s sad. The flight is always delayed. So they always miss their appointments.”

It’s also a challenge for doctors like Dr. Kaohimanu Dang Akiona, who flies between her clinics on Molokai and the Big Island.

“I think that’s probably one of the biggest frustrations for us because it really impacts how I can schedule patients,” she said.

Dang Akiona also said the lack of reliable flights discourages specialists from flying in for only a day of appointments at a time.

“I do see why providers are hesitant to want to clear your whole schedule to potentially come here and have your whole day just turned upside down,” she said.

Residents have nicknames for Mokulele, like “Moku-delay” or “Moku-late-late,” but the island’s member of Congress, Rep. Jill Tokuda, is not amused.

“This is a literally a life-threatening situation here, where the reliability of air transportation is really going to, you know, make a difference in the quality of life of our residents there. It does not exist today,”

Tokuda said she does not believe the airline’s claim of improvement after facing delays in trying to travel in her district.

State legislators were so unhappy with Mokulele that they approved a $2 million pilot program to buy charter flights for health care, based on a bill sponsored by Rep. Mahina Poepoe, a Democrat representing Molokai, Lanai, and East Maui.

“This could very well save lives or, at the very least, drastically improve health care outcomes and access to medical care for residents in my district,” she said on the House floor in support of the item in the state budget.

The Health Department responded to Poepoe’s bill by agreeing that there was a problem to be solved but had no clear plan for how the money would be used.

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Keith Sisson, Mokulele’s Chief of Staff, said they are back to reliability after having aircraft shortage problems during the fall and winter. He said Mokulele now has three to four nine-passenger Cessna caravans it can keep in reserve.

When asked if a Molokai resident with an appointment at 10 a.m. could rely on a morning flight to meet that appointment, he said, “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

He said that on-time performance has dramatically improved. “We’ve been running in the 90s, most days in the last two weeks,” Sisson said.

However, statistics provided by the airline for two weeks ending May 11 show that there were just four days, and over 90% of flights were within 15 minutes of schedule. Two other days were in the 80s. Most experts say 80% on time is a good record.

On most days in the period, the airline fell below 80%, with four days in the 70s, one in the 60s, and on three days, flights were on time only slightly more than half the time. The average on-time rate was about 75% daily.

When asked what he would say to those who still don’t trust the airline, he said, “Try it again. You know, it’s just like if you go to McDonald’s and get a cold hamburger, go back and the next one may be warm. We’re running a good hamburger joint right now.”

However, executives know more is at stake than just the on-time statistics. As a crucial element in Molokai and Lanai health care, Mokulele’s poor reputation is attracting scrutiny from the government.

It seeks a subsidy for its Lanai routes and interest from potential competitors, which many on Molokai would welcome.

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