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Lihue Airport Improvements Hijacked by Anti-Visitor Sentiment

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.

No Parking: Was Lihue Airport on Kauai Hijacked By Anti-Visitor Sentiment?

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.

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57 thoughts on “Lihue Airport Improvements Hijacked by Anti-Visitor Sentiment”

  1. Near impossible to placate/satisfy everyone’s perspective. Got married at Coco Palms in 1984(still in disrepair); a very special place with Larry singing. Returned many times ..with daughters, relatives & friends to Hawaii, Oahu, & Maui.. yeah. Culture, history, & serenity (to some extent) is wonderful. Paradise has changed though- follow da $. I appreciate local sentiment for too many visitors & impact (e.g. loud, rude, sloppy, clueless).. we raised our daughters to treat/respect others & environment like your own. Airport traffic anywhere is problematic – part of the experience(?). If HI tourism bureau/agency encourages more(or pressured to attract) tourist$, funding for infrastructure should be expected. Priorities..

  2. Traffic congestion is not caused solely by tourists. Employees have to get to work. Hotels and other employers create peaks by having the sane work hours. County bus service is essentially unusable by tourists because of infrequency, indcipherable bus stop locations, and multimiles to destination.

  3. HDOT is a disaster. Their “solutions” to problems just make things worse. The security force at LIH is rude and out of control. Lack of signage and professional enforcement of rules makes it worse.

  4. Just a suggestion. Instead of trying to curtail tourism, why not try educating tourists? I think this topic alone and the various responses is quite enlightening. Of course some will never learn and continue to not care about the land, but it is worth a try…

  5. I recently returned from Kauai and was appalled at the lack of knowledge of diabetic appliances. I traveled through the Spokane and Seattle airport with no problem but every time I travel to Kauai, I have problems getting through security. This has happened 3 times so far and it shows rudeness and discrimination to diabetics.

  6. With all this complaining it seems like locals would have favored a Japanese victory in 1941. That government would have addressed all these concerns 80 years ago with a few thousands crates of ammo like they did in China, the Philippines and Korea.

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  7. Kauai is a small island, locals are burned out on tourism and the Uber rich buying up land to create their own little kingdoms.

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  8. Please remember that kauai is, or was, a small and local community. It is now a mess of traffic and overcrowding for the residents.
    Any improvements at the airport will just open up the island to more overcrowding and less quality of life.

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    1. Tourist only accounts for 20% of the state’s revenue an Kauai like the other islands would rather see diversification then expand tourism.

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  9. This may seem a little off topic, but a lack of State funding that appears to drag projects along for years might be resolved if a state lotto was allowed!!…I don’t mean casinos… The concerns of a small percentage of the population who may have a gambling addiction ( I recall reading that somewhere as being one the excuses for not allowing it…) as opposed to the tax revenue generated by a lottery for schools and infrastructure are minor. People have been asking for it for years, but the State Legislature always vote it out.
    Just imagine the beautiful airport remodel or that all schools could get air conditioning.

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  10. Hawaii airports are the worst, ugliest and poorly managed…..buckets sitting everywhere in the Honolulu airport when it rains…..new bathrooms dirty and littered…..dark gloomy, dated, poor signage, ag inspection with attitude, empty concessions….
    Ah…….welcome…..paradise!

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  11. Leave Lihue alone! It’s charming! We don’t need more visitors. We don’t need more parking because we don’t need more cars or else our one road will turn into a nightmare parking lot.
    When are leaders going to realize we need to restrict flights so that the visitors will have a better vacation? More people =more stress
    Grow some common sense.

    14
  12. I can sympathize with both sides. Kauai is a very special place and I could see why the people there would want to preserve the beauty and way of life from big corporations that are drooling to get their hands on a piece of the island but cutting off tourism seems like it would be taking a step back 100 years and some would welcome that but most wouldn’t.
    If I could go back and buy a few hundred acres from Cook I would in a heartbeat but unfortunately the dream of owning a small piece of paradise will most likely stay a dream.

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  13. Seems like the two sides here can be framed as those that love Hawaii and want to protect it for the future. Many are people that live here or visitors that respect and love Hawaii for what it is. Or those that simply want Hawaii available to them as cheaply as possible and somehow think the more mass tourism the better and so what about the quality of life of the people that live here. They seem to think they’re bring jobs to people to serve their needs is reward enough. Hawaii needs to invest in education for it’s future and support quality tourism to fund it.

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  14. The improvement plan wasn’t hijacked at all. Creating an improvement plan was irresponsible when the island’s general plan hasn’t been executed. We can’t accommodate more tourists when we haven’t improved housing and traffic. And we don’t even have an adequate workforce to serve the growing number of tourists. It’s gonna be record numbers every month in 2023, until we hit a wall when tourists get frustrated with waits at the rental cars and hotels.

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    1. Improvements in safety, security,air traffic flow and bathroom amenities are fine. However, affordable housing for the local workforce and road improvements in and out of Lihu’e need priority over airport capacity enlargements. The public hearing was a demonstration in democrasy, telling their leadership not to put the cart before the horse.

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