Has Kona Airport finally arrived? With modernization upgrades completed, the director is still considering more

A modernized South Terminal was one of many improvements to the airport that began in 2017. PC: DOT

After five years of major construction and millions of dollars in upgrades and additions, Ellison Onizuka International Airport in Keāhole is a different experience for the traveler than it was in 2017.

With the recent completion of the $58.7 million Federal Inspection Services Facility and the new $8 million Agricultural Inspection Station set to launch in November, the modernization project that began there half a decade ago will be over – and the footprint of Kona’s scenic Outer Airport forever altered.

But ask Kona Airport District Manager Chauncey Wong Yuen if he thinks the job is done, he’ll tell you far from it.

“You know what I want?” Wong Yuen said during a recent tour of the renovated transportation hub, which welcomed the return of direct flights from Tokyo on August 2. “I want a pool at the level between the walkways so people can have a drink between the walkways and sit at the pool and then go shower and jump on their plane and go to New York or whatever.



But that’s only part of the director’s vision. Wong Yuen knows more pressing fixes are on the agenda ahead of the pools, such as bathroom upgrades, which will happen next. But he’s adamant about lap swimming and lounging on the track is no pipe dream.


“It’s really realistic,” Wong Yuen said. “JFK has done it before. Singapore has done it. There’s this place in the Dominican Republic, they’ve done it, that’s another example. So it’s doable. You just have to have the courage.”

Uniquely outdoor and Hawaiian, Kona Airport offers a magical atmosphere to many travelers. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

First, the modernization upgrades are pretty much complete.

The multi-phase project that started in 2017 has three main objectives. First, he wanted to improve the South Terminal and connect it to the North Terminal from inside, so that people can easily access the other from inside the airport. It accomplished this phase with the completion of the newly refurbished terminal.


A second goal was to improve online service, so he added self-checking machines and an online baggage system so bags were no longer inspected in the lobby.

It was also a goal to move the agricultural inspection stations away from the online service areas where they currently are: to get it out of the lobby and make the customer service experience more seamless.

The new agricultural inspection station will operate next to the baggage service station behind the scenes so that the bags are inspected one after the other, i.e. away from the hall where customers have to inspect them again for products online before boarding the plane.

“It’s kind of a pilot project, if it succeeds, other airports will follow,” Wong Yuen said as he gazed at the giant warehouse. “If all goes well, the rest of the airports can convert.”

Hawai’i Airport District Manager Chauncey Wong Yuen says the new agricultural inspection station is expected to open in November. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

Kona Airport, a leader in modernization?

As odd as it sounds – the airport’s reputation is one with a laid-back, small-island atmosphere – it is. If agricultural inspection operates as planned, i.e. more formally and out of sight, other island airports will seek to install similar inspection facilities.

The third goal was to add the $58.7 million federal inspection station that opened in October, which ensures Kona can maintain one of its key economic drivers, international tourism.

This facility, in the words of Department of Transportation Director Jade Butnay, makes Kona a “critical” second point of entry into Hawai’i for anyone visiting a foreign country and opens the capacity primarily to foreign travelers disembarking in the he is.

Honolulu serves as the main hub. But the state promised to build the federal inspection center in 2016 as a requirement with Customs and Border Protection as a stipulation to ensure Kona can resume hosting international travel. Before the resumption was granted, the last scheduled international flight to Kona was in October 2010.

The new south terminal photographed from the outside. PC: DOT

To provide some insight into what international travel means for the state economically, in 2019, the last year before the pandemic ended, Japanese visitors spent $1.03 billion here.

Up to 2,500 international visitors arrived at KOA per week on Hawaiian Airlines and Japan Airlines flights from Japan at the time.

Now, with the Federal Inspection Building fully operational, where these visitors are processed once they land, international travel can only grow. That’s why Governor David Ige described Kona Airport as “a new port of entry” into the state and country during a recent visit.

“This is just the beginning,” Ige said of the economic impact international travel will have on the island of Hawaii.

This could also be the start of Kona Airport improvements.

Retouching work, so to speak, will take place soon. Bathrooms will then begin to be renovated and officials begin a design plan to enclose the airport lobby where cabanas and benches are located near the gates. The hut area would not be fully enclosed – it would still feel like the outdoors and would not have a roof – but glass walls would be erected around it so that it can be air-conditioned.

“You could always go out and walk around,” Wong Yuen said.

This design plan could take a year to 18 months to complete. After which, the Airport Division – which raises and spends its own funds on projects – would work to finance its construction.

This is an underachieved component of the airport: state airports largely fund themselves.

Although the Airports Division falls under the state DOT, airports do not receive money from the state. They generate their own funds through user fees from airlines, private companies, duty-free shops and concessions – hence the $10 hot dog. Curiously, however, airports need the approval of the state legislature to actually spend the money they collect.

Hawaii airports are also eligible to collect federal grants if they so choose. But as for the recent federal inspection station at KOA, it was largely funded by money generated by the airport.

“People don’t know that,” Wong Yuen said.

There are other improvements the director wants to see happen before he can say Kona Airport has fully become a major — or near major — international flight hub. Whatever happens, it will remain an external, insular airport, with its limits, quirks and charms.

Which suits some travelers.

Marc Bromberg and Debbie Whitehead of Colorado, three-time visitors to Kona, said they love Kona Airport’s outdoor vibe. As soon as you step off the plane you are on the tarmac and you can see the ocean and the swaying palm trees.

“You think, ‘I really ran away, I’m in heaven,'” Bromberg said. “It’s just a really cool outdoor Hawaiian feel. I actually love it. I don’t miss a closed formal mall airport at all.

Both said they would like to see amenity upgrades – more retail or dining and bathroom refreshes, which are coming, but were adamant that the airport retain its aura.

“There’s almost the vibe of an old train station,” Whitehead said, adding that she hopes the airport, after the upgrades, “will retain its unique character.”

Providing more shaded areas is an immediate improvement project that airport officials will undertake. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

“It’s nostalgic and lovely,” she said.

Wong Yuen knows that whatever improvements come, the outer footprint will remain. Weather conditions alone weigh on airport equipment, which requires constant maintenance.

“I will be honest and say that there is still a lot to do because we are still an outside airport,” the manager said, returning to the question of whether the airport has finally arrived. “We’re not going to have that kind of experience that everyone has in a covered terminal. People are largely lenient with the conditions here. They are grateful to be outside, in the sun, they can lie in the grass.

In fact, among his many visions, he would like to highlight this outer theme.

“I wish I had more grass so people could picnic more,” he said. “People have already determined that this is an outdoor space.”

In the meantime, another immediate improvement that will take place is the shading of the new walkway between the North and South terminals inside the airport. Another long-term vision is to add a chain of private hotels on the grounds opposite the car rental companies. The director has been in contact with national channels, which have shown interest.

“The private sector is changing rapidly,” he said.

And then there is the swimming pool. How would that be for an outdoor international airport experience? Check in, drop off your bags, jump in and “just get drenched”.

“That’s what I want,” Wong Yuen said. “I tell you what.”


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