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Mokulele Airlines Ends Service At Santa Maria Airport

District has paid $900,000 in revenue subsidies but passenger growth failed to materialize

Hawaii-based Mokulele Airlines, which flies 9-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan single-engine aircraft, has ended its service to the Santa Maria Public Airport, citing a lack of passenger traffic. Click to view larger
Hawaii-based Mokulele Airlines, which flies 9-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan single-engine aircraft, has ended its service to the Santa Maria Public Airport, citing a lack of passenger traffic. (Mokulele Airlines photo)

The Hawaii-based airline that had expanded to the mainland to include Santa Maria service has departed after failing to attract enough passengers to support the flights. 

Mokulele Airlines stopped its Santa Maria Public Airport flights effective Nov. 30, leaving Allegiant Air as the only airline providing scheduled passenger service. Allegiant flies three days a week between Santa Maria and Las Vegas.

“I don't think there is one clear reason why the service didn't work out, but ultimately we did not see ridership numbers improving enough to continue with our airline support program, which included revenue guarantees, fee waivers, and marketing support,” said Chris Hastert, general manager of the Santa Maria Public Airport. 

Mokulele began offering service in Santa Maria in late 2016, first flying to and from Los Angeles International Airport.

As those flights failed to fill adequately, earlier this year the company switched to offer flights to the Hollywood Burbank Airport in the fall.

A smaller airport, Hollywood Burbank still had multiple connections to other airlines, but was expected to have fewer delays than those encountered at extremely busy LAX.

To help support the new service, the airport board agreed to guarantee Mokulele Airlines revenue, with more than $900,000 of district funds handed over to the company as subsidies since last year.

The revenue subsidies were part of an incentive package to help the airline while building the new service in Santa Maria.

“Mokulele started service to Santa Maria in partnership with the airport authority,” said Rob Mckinney, president of the family owned and operated airline. “The intention was to build air service to a self-sustaining level.  For a variety of reasons, that didn't happen, and the partnership ended at the end of November.”

As part of its expansion to the mainland, Mokulele began flights at the Santa Maria airport in October 2016, starting up as United Airlines stopped serving the northern Santa Barbara County community.

The airline also serves Imperial/El Centro, with several flights a week.

Mokulele flies 9-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan single-engine airplanes, much smaller than the regional jets used by United Express or the 19-passenger turboprop planes it previously used.

Hastert said the fact Mokulele used single-engine aircraft accommodating nine passengers meant it was hard to make a profit unless people filled the seats. Higher ticket prices would have left Mokulele unable to compete with other airlines.

However, many passengers don’t like to fly on a small airplane, leading them to drive to airports with bigger aircraft. 

Mokulele also lacked agreements with other major carriers, so customers had to book multiple tickets to get to their destinations.

If a passenger did book multiple flights to their destination, checked bags had to be rechecked after the Mokulele flight.

In October 2016, Mokulele reported 345 passengers compared to 106 and 93 for September and October 2017, adding up to a 73 percent drop, according to data provided to the airport.

Despite the setback, airport officials still are working to expand air service, planning to meet with SkyWest Airlines representatives in January.

The focus of meetings with major airlines and regional air carriers involving flights to eastbound hubs such as Phoenix, Salt Lake City or Denver.

“We feel we are getting closer to positive news,” Hastert said. “However, it is a difficult industry to get a commitment from, as airlines are dealing with issues related to aircraft availability, pilot shortages, and competition for routes.”

Santa Maria’s airport has long struggled to boost air service amid competition from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara airports, both of which are county seats and communities with universities.

To help attract customers, Santa Maria has continued to provide free parking for long-term and short-term users.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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