We received notice from the State Department of Transportation that the Lihue Airport parking lot was closed due to overcrowding on the three day holiday weekend. Bummer. Your editors were heading to the airport. They called it a one-car out/one-car in situation. This is a recurring issue with inadequate parking, especially at peak times like last weekend’s Presidents Day.
The Hawaii Department of Transportation planned to upgrade the Lihue Airport.
The upgrade plans were part of an airport master plan. They included, among other things:
1. Runway compliance work. Lihue Airport (LIH) needed to adapt to federal airport requirements that have existed for 15 years. It is the only airport in the United States that hasn’t already complied with FAA runway safety rules. That has finally been approved (even without the overall plan approval), and work should commence later this year. A runway will be shifted by just under 1,000 feet to increase the safety buffer surrounding it for any landing problems. Approved lighting will also be installed.
2. Three additional gates. The Hawaii DOT/Airports proposed adding three other gates for the sometimes ridiculously overcrowded airport.
Inadequate, antiquated gate facilities are what you’ll find at Lihue Airport. There aren’t enough gates for flights at peak hours, and what can be done is unclear. At present, there is also a problematic non-jetway gate at the far end of the airport (gate 10A). That’s cumbersome for passengers and the airlines that get stuck with it. It features a tiny elevator that allows one wheelchair passenger at a time to descend to the ground to access the plane’s ramp. Other passengers must access the plane by descending the stairs and walking out to a portable ramp. On a recent flight, editor Jeff noted no fewer than 15 wheelchair passengers who had to be boarded via that slow elevator.
3. Building of a CONRAC (Consolidated rental car facility). Those were added at HNL (Honolulu) and OGG (Maui). This move of car rental facilities would have also added hundreds of additional parking spots for residents. It was rejected, however, and now we are faced with the long term problem of not having enough parking spots at Lihue and the lot even being closed at times.
Hawaii DOT/Airports Lihue master plan was rejected.
The state’s master plan for Lihue airport was rejected based on outspoken community hearing input, which, as confirmed by DOT, may not have adequately represented the feelings of the greater Kauai community. It isn’t clear how more people can have input, given that this doesn’t appear to be something that can appear on a voter’s ballot. This is because it is a Department of Transportation issue.
Due to the strong outpouring in opposition, which appeared based largely on the idea that adding infrastructure like gates and parking correlates with adding more flights and traffic, the proposal was quashed.
Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau Kauai head Sue Kanoho had these comments: “The people who showed up and testified at the Lihue Airport Master Plan meetings voted against expanding the airport. This is what we have to live with for quite some time… We asked for an additional 200 stalls or if we could add a 2nd level to the current parking lot and that was denied (by the state)…. It was the CONRAC or nothing.”
The whole affair, handled by consultants hired by the Department of Transportation, abruptly ended last year. This came to a head towards the end of Covid, which may have exacerbated the expressed negative visitor sentiment. In talking with the DOT/Airports, they hope to have far broader community input on the next go around.
Kauai’s mayor said that DOT/Airports is striving to increase revenue via airlines since it is how DOT is funded, which he sees as problematic and conflicted. Senate President Ron Kouchi, also from Kauai, seems generally opposed to most Lihue airport improvements. He equates a CONRAC facility with more cars and then questions the island’s ability to have more on the roads. That concern, we understand. On the other hand, Kauai residents suffer because of not having the CONRAC, which DOT says means there cannot be more airport parking. Obviously, on-airport parking is used almost exclusively by residents and not visitors. And there is no private or off-airport parking.
A new Lihue Airport optimization plan is next.
The DOT said that a new plan is currently in the works. It will not address adding additional gates at this time or a consolidated car rental facility. It is expected to work primarily within the current airport footprint. But the plan will include other improvements, such as bathrooms and enclosing the concourses. The time period for such a plan can be up to 10 years, so we shouldn’t look for any immediate relief. An opportunity, perhaps using a different approach, for more community input will return.
With or without that plan, we were told that gate 10A might be set to receive a jetway bridge, which would greatly help passengers and airlines who end up using that existing, problematic stairway gate.
Timing of Kauai flights is another issue.
Mainland arrivals and departures are bunched together and overload the existing facilities. Flights are within the purview of the FAA, whereas the airports are owned by the state and meet federal government requirements. So it isn’t clear if there’s any way to cope with the situation of airline flight schedules. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)… regulates all aspects of civil aviation in the country… Its powers include air traffic management, certification of personnel and aircraft, [and] setting standards for airports.”
Kouchi last year said he was asking federal representatives to address the FAA and look at capacity issues before approving any more flights landing.
Lihue Airport restrooms remain an eyesore.
When returning home and using one of the airport restrooms, we often ask, “what must visitors think if this is their first impression?” As you may recall, Hawaii airports remain at the bottom in U.S. rankings. The state DOT is planning for improvements, including new restrooms to replace those that were built more than 40 years ago. For example, the new restrooms at Honolulu Airport are a tremendous improvement over their predecessors.