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Hawaii Airports In Disarray: New Appointment, Same Critical Systemic Failures

Despite numerous articles we’ve authored highlighting the chronic issues plaguing Hawaii’s airport administration, the state continues to struggle with inadequate management and operational inefficiencies. The latest press release from the Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT) announced the appointment of Curt Otaguro as Deputy Director of Transportation for Airports, effective June 4, 2024.

This appointment raises questions about whether real change is possible without significant structural reforms, especially since Otaguro has no experience in airport management.

Image: LinkedIn

Otaguro will be responsible for management of the 15 airports in the State Airports System. This includes operation, upgrade, and maintenance of airfield and terminal infrastructure to meet Federal Aviation Administration safety standards and customer experience expectations.

Ed Sniffen, HDOT

A band-aid solution to critical infrastructure failures.

The appointment of Otaguro, who previously served as State Comptroller and Deputy Superintendent of Operations for the Department of Education, is being hailed as a positive step by HDOT. However, this move feels more like a superficial fix than a comprehensive solution to the state airport system’s deeply entrenched and troublesome issues.

Hawaii remains one of only three states in the U.S. without a separate, independent airport authority. This lack of independence is widely seen as a major barrier to effective management and accountability.

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Historical context of Hawaii airports’ under-performance.

For years, Hawaii’s all-important airports have been marred by complaints of poor infrastructure, long wait times, and subpar customer service. Despite some efforts to modernize facilities, at great expense, the overall performance has remained dismal. The HDOT’s reliance on internal appointments and traditional bureaucratic structures has done nothing to alleviate these problems. The ongoing issues at our major airports including Honolulu Airport (HNL) underscore the need for more radical changes.

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There is a need for major structural reform at Hawaii airports.

Experts argue that creating an independent airport authority is crucial for improving the performance of Hawaii’s airports. An independent body could streamline operations, help enhance fiscal responsibility, and implement best practices learned from other higher-performing U.S. airports. This model has been successfully adopted throughout the U.S., leading to improved efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Otaguro faces big challenges ahead.

As Otaguro takes on his new role, he faces the daunting task of managing 15 airports within the State Airports System. And he does that without any prior airport management experience.

His responsibilities will include operating, upgrading, and maintaining airfield and terminal infrastructure, areas that have suffered greatly. This is needed to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety standards and to meet Hawaii’s traveler expectations. While his background in managing large-scale facilities and capital improvement projects is at least promising, we find that the scope of systemic issues in Hawaii airport administration may prove challenging to overcome without broader changes.

Honolulu Airport Runway Repairs

Case in point: Study: Multiple recent runway closures and maintenance issues.

The recent urgent runway closure at Honolulu Airport (HNL), scheduled from May 1 to June 7, 2024, highlights the ongoing infrastructure problems. This closure, needed for runway shoulder paving and drainage work, impacts HNL operations, particularly during peak travel times. The lack of advance notice and the prioritization of mainland flights over interisland flights during the closure remains troubling for the most important airport in our state, which is entirely reliant on both air travel and tourism.

This incident is not isolated. Earlier this year, urgent runway repairs at Kona and Maui airports disrupted operations, reflecting HDOT’s reactive rather than proactive approach to airport maintenance. The pattern of frequent and abrupt notifications of maintenance actions underscores inadequacies in HDOT’s infrastructure management capabilities.

Otaguro’s professional background and potential Impact.

Curt Otaguro brings a diverse background to this new role. According to his LinkedIn profile, he spent 37 1/2 years in banking before retiring. His experience spans credit and debit card operations, payments, project management, product development, retail banking and sales, business development, call center operations, digital and mobile banking, and general IT management.

While his financial acumen and project management skills are impressive, the specific challenges of managing a large and critical state airport system may require a different skill set.

The embarrassing rankings of Hawaii’s airports.

Adding to the criticism of Hawaii’s airports, Hawaii’s two most important airports recently ranked near the bottom of the JD Power survey. Despite billions spent on renovations, Honolulu and Kahului airports were rated poorly across multiple categories, including accessibility, check-in, security, and terminal facilities. These consistently low rankings reflect outdated and inadequate infrastructure and the ongoing failure of effective airport management.

Airlines and Hawaii travelers want better airports.

You’ve said this in countless comments. Airlines, too, have long expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of Hawaii’s airports. Issues such as poor design, dilapidated facilities, broken luggage movers, and frequent power outages have been cited. These inefficiencies in airport operations continue to negatively impact the travel experience for Hawaii visitors and residents alike.

The push for an independent Hawaii Airport Authority.

There is a growing belief that an independent airport authority must address these persistent system-wide problems. Such an authority would provide focused management, dedicated resources, and greater accountability. It would enable quicker decision-making and better strategic planning, free from the significantly broader responsibilities that currently are the responsibility of the HDOT.

While the appointment of Curt Otaguro as the lead and Deputy Director of Transportation for Airports is a step forward, it is hard to imagine how that will result in the transformational change needed to address the chronic troubles of Hawaii’s airports. It seems inevitable that Hawaii must establish an independent airport authority to drive meaningful improvements. Until then, administrative changes, such as this, may only be band-aid solutions to much deeper problems.

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28 thoughts on “Hawaii Airports In Disarray: New Appointment, Same Critical Systemic Failures”

  1. I appreciate the Hawaii-centric reporting you do in Beat of Hawaii. I also appreciate the ability media has of putting public officials on the spot. It would be beneficial to have official comments from the Director of Transportation and/or the governor, having them address the questions and concerns you raise.

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    1. Hi Mark.

      Thanks. We have reached out to the DOT previously and unfortunately, don’t get a response.

      Aloha.

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      1. Aloha. Keep trying to get through to DOT. Even your message about wanting commentary on the situation says you and other media are interested in their “spin” on the topic.

  2. I’m not saying that Hawaii’s airports don’t need improvement but I travel to one of Honolulu, Lihue. or Kahului on a yearly basis and have never had any issues with anything. Both my family and I like the open air airport designs which harken back to a simpler, less stressful era. Maybe if I lived on the islands or took multiple flights there on a yearly basis I’d feel different.

  3. I am a disabled senior citizen. I feel compelled to add my comments as I wish to compliment the airport department and staff. There were no flight delays, the runways were smoothe, my luggage was on time, and the wheelchair assistance was better than I have had anywhere else. You see, despite my physical disabilities, I am fortunate enough to travel the world. The Honululu airport is excellent. I like the open-air architecture and the lighting. I find it welcoming and refreshing. In my condition, I have special needs above and beyond most all other travellers. My experiences at the airport, from start to finish, were terrific, and I look forward to my future flights to and from the international airport in Honolulu.

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    1. I find it amazing that you would base all of Hawaii’s airport operations on One trip! That number by and of itself is statistically insignificant and you should just consider yourself lucky that you had no problems.

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  4. The entire island is run by incompetent officials. These important high paying jobs are giving to corrupt family and friends of these State official. It’s bad enough they’re destroying the toursim industry but now they are ruining their own living space. When will the clown show end?

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  5. I agree with the view point of the writer. I fly into the Big Island often. Kona has cracks that appear mysteriously. Hilo has well it has over problems that are documented dealing with operations.

    1. It’s not hard to believe the Big Island airports would have runway problems because of all the earthquakes from the volcanos. I still love the Big Island the most 😍😍😍

  6. Nothing will change, except we may see a little less of Ed Sniffen on the news. Thank goodness for that! Watch Hawaii’s so-called leaders carefully on the news, its usually talk, talk, talk, about what the problem is with No action! From the Department of Agriculture (Rhinoceros beetle and fire ant infestation) to Maui’s emergency management team (Lahaina tragedy) to the department of transportation et. al. All BS and no action. Lets hope Mr. Otaguro spent enough time in the private sector to blast through the excuse factory that is Hawaii government, and get something done. As for Hawaii voters, we get the government we vote for!

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    1. What have you done? Have you stepped up to the plate to “Be The Difference Maker”? It’s sad to see all these complaints from people who haven’t applied for the position or even attempted to find a place where they can bring about a positive change. Have you talked to your congress person? Or better yet, have you tried to run for a state seat to be in a position to influence positive change in Hawaii. Too much bashing with very little action…..and yet you’re asking for others to take action. Makes no sense…..get out an do something about it!! All of you!!

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      1. Unfortunately, most of this stuff is ultimately determined by the voters and unfortunately we know who the voters prefer. Just look at the outcomes. We also know what the word is for “keep doing the same expecting different results”. Look it up 😉

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  7. Well, Hawaii has once again outdone their already unbelievable level of ineptness as to Hawaii airport management with this “novel” appointment of someone with No apparent airport experience other than maybe having flown in or out of some of Hawaii’s airports. You don’t even have to try to make this clown show up because those running the state are quite well versed in creating another!?&%$* situation!

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  8. What I see on this island is just a reshuffle of ready to retire or pulled out of retirement gentlemen, that aren’t doing The job. This is how it is here. Always has been, always will be. We are in the middle of the ocean. If you don’t like it, there’s another flight back to the bigger island. I’ve accepted it and am retired, but feel for those trying to do their best work when disfunction is in their path.

  9. I’m laughing as I type… Just more of the same… Most of the third world airports I’ve gone through are in better shape than HNL. At least I get to try the new HA terminal when I leave. It’s been that long since I’ve flown on them. At some point the can hits the wall and impacts the tarmac…

    Best Regards

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