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AIRPORT PROFILES Last modified on March 16, 2012

Anybody and everybody

Joe Bates catches up with Hawaii’s Ford Fuchigami to find out more about Honolulu International Airport and the island state’s aviation system.

There is a feel good factor about Honolulu International Airport and Hawaii’s airport system these days, and it’s not just down to rising traffic figures.

When you think about Hawaii as a destination and the images this conjures up in your mind – depending on what you like, this may vary from palm tree fringed beaches and surfing to hula-hula dancing and fiery volcanoes – it is hard not to feel enthused about life.

But this was far from how many employees of the state-run airport system felt as recently as 14 months ago following a three-year hiring freeze and the furloughing of 20% of staff. 

A series of newspaper articles and TV programmes that cast airport employees in a negative light certainly didn’t help matters nor did complaints about some of Honolulu International Airport’s older facilities “looking shabby”, due to the lack of maintenance.

However, the swearing in of a new administration under Governor 

Neil Abercrombie in December 2010 and the introduction a month later of a more customer-focused regime under the Hawaii Department of Transportation’s new deputy director for airports, Ford Fuchigami, changed the landscape.

Unlike his predecessor, Fuchigami was from a hospitality industry background and his business sense, gained from more than 20 years in the hotel industry, told him that the time was right to introduce a new customer service culture, end the staff furlough and start hiring again.

Within a few months new janitors and maintenance workers arrived and an $8 million package of improvements was set in place at Honolulu International Airport (HNL) that included refurbishing the flooring and adding a ‘sense of place’ to a series of breezeways (roofed outdoor passages) that run between the gateway’s concourses.

The ‘sense of place’ additions included the construction of a ‘Polynesian navigational compass’ at the intersection between three breezeways and the creation of an eye-catching blue vinyl wave roof at the entrance to the US Customs and Border Protection area in International Arrivals.

Both proved to be a big hit with airport workers as well as passengers and have helped create a new, more vibrant image for the gateway, as have the improved levels of customer service.

As part of the new customer service culture, all new employees are actively encouraged to be passenger-friendly, and existing staff – including those not employed by the Hawaiian Department of Transportation such as taxi-drivers, retailers and waiters – are encouraged to participate in Hawaiian culture training seminars whenever possible.

Demonstrating that he practices what he preaches, Fuchigami has established a routine of walking around HNL twice a day and talking to employees. 

He also believes in having an open door policy with the airlines and other business partners, and shortly after starting, managed to get a number of requests done for a Japanese tour group operator in six months that the previous administration had failed to do in three years. 

Hawaii Department of Transportation’s public information officer, Daniel Meisenzahl, is among those who believe that HNL has undergone a transformation for the better over the last 12 months.

“Our airport system is a very different place to visit and work at now than it was just over a year ago. Everything has changed and the feedback from staff has been incredible. They tell me that they have never worked harder and have never been happier,” says Meisenzahl.

“Ford is a people person. He wants feedback from staff and wouldn’t hesitate about going up to a janitor and saying what do you think about this? His management style has really empowered employees and this has had an amazing effect on everyone. Now staff regularly thank him for the job he is doing. People are walking around with a smile on their faces again, and it’s good to see.”

Fuchigami is naturally delighted by the positive response to his management style as he is in no doubt about the importance of air transportation to the success and prosperity of Hawaii.

“Our remote location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean means that our airport system, and Honolulu International Airport in particular, are critical to the state, as it’s how people get here,” he enthuses.

“Tourism is the number one industry in Hawaii and this would simply not be the case without aviation as it would take five or six days to get here by ship from the mainland.

“Flying is also the quickest and easiest way to travel between the islands for Hawaiians and the millions of tourists that visit the state each year as there really is no ferry system to speak of and, of course, it is the fastest way to transport perishable goods and time sensitive cargo.”

The State of Hawaii actually boasts 15 airports, although the vast majority of them are nothing more than small landing strips handling general aviation activity, air taxi services and the occasional charter flights.

In marked contrast to these, Hawaii boasts five “big airports” in the shape of Honolulu, Kahului, Lihue, Kona and Hilo – located on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii (The Big Island) respectively. 

By far the biggest, Honolulu International Airport, is the undisputed air transport gateway to Hawaii, handling around 18.5 million passengers annually. 

Indeed, around 80% of the state’s population of 1.2 million live on Oahu, which is also home to the University of Hawaii and a host of other campuses that are hugely popular with Asian students, particularly from Japan, Korea and China.

Although passenger traffic across Hawaii’s airport system is on the rise again today, Fuchigami is quick to point out that the global economic downturn of the last few years hit Hawaii hard, as people put holidays on hold and business trips were cancelled.

In fact he has no qualms in stating that after a banner year in 2007 when 21.5 million passengers passed through HNL, the bottom fell out of the market and led to a tough couple of years before rebounding strongly in 2011. 

The upturn in the market persuaded home carrier, Hawaiian Airlines, to up frequencies on a number of key routes last year as did Delta and Alaska Airlines.

In addition, China Eastern (Shanghai) and South Korean carrier, Asiana (Seoul), launched services to Honolulu. 

So will 2011 go down in the history books as a good, bad or average year for Honolulu International Airport and Hawaii’s airport system and why? 

Fuchigami says: “It was an excellent year for Honolulu and Hawaii. 

Our passenger counts are up and are continuing to climb as new markets open up. 

“Revenues are up from last year and the proof is in the latest numbers by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which placed visitor spending at $12.58 billion. That’s just 0.4% shy of 2007’s record setting year. 

“It is important that we give each and everyone of those visitors a memorable first impression of our state. Fortunately, we were able to do just that with a 20% increase in custodial and maintenance employees at the airport thanks to the end of government-mandated furlough days and hiring restrictions that ended early last year.”

One of Fuchigami’s main tasks will be to oversee the first phase of the Hawaii Department of Transportation’s $1 billion, 10-year master plan to modernise and upgrade the island state’s airport facilities in several key steps over the next decade.

Honolulu International Airport currently boasts a main terminal with three concourses (Diamond Head, Central and Ewa), a Commuter Terminal and an Interisland Terminal, which is 100% occupied by Hawaiian Airlines.

Next on the agenda under the newly amended and renamed ‘New Day’ master plan is the addition of a fourth concourse (Mauka), which according to Fuchigami, will help raise the Honolulu International Airport’s capacity and bring new levels of comfort and convenience to passengers.

The $300 million complex will be equipped with 11 gates for narrow-body aircraft or six for wide-bodies and is expected to be one of the world’s most energy efficient passenger complexes.

Construction is expected to start at the end of this year and take two to three years to complete. Before work on it can begin, several buildings that currently occupy the site have to be “moved elsewhere” and apron and taxiways need to be widened.

The buildings that have to make way for the Mauka Concourse include a small Commuter Terminal, which is being relocated to the other side of the airport.

Other new infrastructure planned for HNL includes a new consolidated rental car complex, additional cargo facilities and a wide body maintenance base.

Further down the road in the second phase of HNL’s capital development programme that is likely to start around 2017 or 2018, the existing Diamond Head Concourse will be bulldozed and replaced by a much bigger L shaped facility.

HNL’s other existing concourses – Ewa was built in 1972 and Central in 1980 – are also due to be upgraded and given a modern new-look.

Refurbishments happening before then include the installation of a new air conditioning system this year and the renovation of lobby areas in the main terminal which, with the exception of the recently modernised Lobby 8, still boast décor from the 1970s.

Elsewhere in Hawaii, Hilo International Airport became the first gateway to benefit from the billion dollar master plan courtesy of a new parking structure, cargo building and taxiways.

Kahului Airport, the second most popular destination in Hawaii and major source of revenue for United and Alaska Airlines, will also benefit from new investment in the shape of additional gates and extra security checkpoints.

“It has been a while since any of Hawaii’s airports have undergone a major upgrade, so the time is right,” says Fuchigami. “Honolulu International Airport could easily handle a 30% increase in traffic with the current facilities, but it does experience peak time congestion, so the Mauka Concourse will make a big difference.

“While functional, all of the state’s other airports could use major upgrades, and we are in the process of evaluating and moving forward with plans to address each airport’s critical needs.” 

In terms of route development, Fuchigami says most of the credit should go to the Hawaiian Tourism Authority, which is primarily responsible for marketing Hawaii around the world.

New entrants to Honolulu – Asiana and China Eastern – are expected to be joined by another carrier in 2012, while Hawaiian Airlines and United have both announced plans to expand their respective networks out of Honolulu with the launch of services to New York JFK.

He says: “Our motto is we welcome anybody and everybody and we are prepared to work with any airline that wants to come to Hawaii. There are operational challenges, of course, as all the airlines want to fly into Hawaii at the same time, but if it can be done, we’ll do it.”

Americans and indeed, America’s love of Hawaii, ensures that domestic traffic currently accounts for 60% of all traffic handled at Honolulu International Airport, and that is unlikely to change much in the future.

Los Angeles, the nearest major US city to Hawaii and gateway to the islands for many, remains HNL’s most popular route accounting for 16.6% of all passengers. The next most popular routes are Tokyo Narita (14.5%) and San Francisco (8.7%).

Hawaiian Airlines is the currently biggest operator in Hawaii and Fuchigami admits that it is a success story that continues to reap benefits for the island state.

“It is possibly one of the state’s most successful advertising tools as every time someone sees one of its aircraft parked at an airport around the world they think of the islands,” he says.

So how would he sum up? “We are on the right track,” says Fuchigami. “It’s all about first impressions. We want people to come to Hawaii and we want their first experience when they get out of the plane to be a positive one. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.”

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