Saffron Restaurants reservation Hawaii Airports in Disarray: New Appointment, Same Critical System Flaws

Hawaii Airports in Disarray: New Appointment, Same Critical System Flaws


Despite numerous articles we have written highlighting the chronic problems facing Hawaii’s airport management, the state continues to struggle with inadequate management and operational inefficiencies. The latest press release from the Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT) announced the appointment of Curt Otaguro as Deputy Director of Transportation for Airports, effective June 4, 2024.

This appointment raises questions about whether real change is possible without major structural reforms, especially since Otaguro has no experience in airport management.

Image: LinkedIn

Otaguro will be responsible for managing the 15 airports in the State Airports System. This includes the operation, upgrade and maintenance of airfield and terminal infrastructure to meet Federal Aviation Administration safety standards and customer experience expectations.

Ed Sniffen, HDOT

A band-aid solution for critical infrastructure failures.

The appointment of Otaguro, who previously served as state comptroller and deputy superintendent of operations for the Department of Education, is being praised by HDOT as a positive step. However, this move feels more like a superficial solution than a comprehensive solution to the deep-seated and vexing problems of the state’s aviation system.

Hawaii remains one of only three states in the US without a separate, independent airport authority. This lack of independence is widely seen as a major barrier to effective governance and accountability.

Beat of Hawaii

Hawaii Airport Upgrades |  Is the latest $36 million infusion enough?Hawaii Airport Upgrades |  Is the latest $36 million infusion enough?

Historical context of Hawaii’s airport underperformance.

For years, Hawaii’s all-important airports were marred by complaints about poor infrastructure, long wait times and subpar customer service. Despite some attempts to modernize the facilities, at great expense, overall performance has remained dismal. HDOT’s reliance on internal appointments and traditional bureaucratic structures has done nothing to alleviate these problems. The ongoing problems at our major airports, including Honolulu Airport (HNL), underscore the need for more radical changes.

$300 Million Honolulu Airport Terminal Still Disappoints After Two Years$300 Million Honolulu Airport Terminal Still Disappoints After Two Years

There is a need for major structural reforms at Hawaii’s airports.

Experts argue that creating an independent airport authority is crucial to improving the performance of Hawaii’s airports. An independent body could streamline operations, increase fiscal responsibility and implement best practices learned from other better-performing U.S. airports. This model has been successfully implemented across the US, resulting in improved efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Otaguro faces major challenges.

As Otaguro assumes his new role, he faces the daunting task of managing fifteen airports within the State Airports System. And he does this without any prior airport management experience.

His responsibilities include operating, upgrading and maintaining airport and terminal infrastructure, areas that have suffered greatly. This is necessary to meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety standards and meet the expectations of travelers in Hawaii. While his background in managing large-scale facilities and capital improvement projects is promising to say the least, we find that the magnitude of systemic problems in Hawaii’s airport management may prove challenging to overcome without broader changes.

Runway repairs at Honolulu AirportRunway repairs at Honolulu Airport

Example: Research: Multiple recent runway closures and maintenance issues.

The recent emergency runway closure at Honolulu Airport (HNL), scheduled from May 1 to June 7, 2024, underscores the ongoing infrastructure challenges. This closure, which is necessary for paving and drainage work on the runway, will impact HNL’s operations, especially during peak hours. The lack of advance notice and the priority given to mainland flights over inter-island flights during the closure remains troubling for our state’s main airport, which is completely dependent on both air travel and tourism.

This incident is not an isolated incident. Earlier this year, urgent runway repairs at Kona and Maui airports disrupted operations, reflecting HDOT’s reactive rather than proactive approach to airport maintenance. The pattern of frequent and abrupt notifications of maintenance actions underscores the shortcomings in HDOT’s infrastructure management capabilities.

Otaguro’s professional background and potential impact.

Curt Otaguro brings a diverse background to this new role. According to his LinkedIn profile, he worked in banking for 37.5 years before retiring. His experience includes credit and debit card operations, payments, project management, product development, retail banking and sales, business development, call center operations, digital and mobile banking and general IT management.

While his financial acumen and project management skills are impressive, the specific challenges of managing a large and critical state airport system may require different skills.

The Embarrassing Ranking of Hawaii’s Airports.

Adding to the criticism of Hawaii’s airports, Hawaii’s two main airports were recently ranked at the bottom of J.D. Power’s list. Despite spending billions on renovations, Honolulu and Kahului airports were rated poorly in multiple categories, including accessibility, check-in, security and terminal facilities. These persistently low rankings reflect the outdated and inadequate infrastructure and the continued failure of effective airport management.

Airlines and Hawaii travelers want better airports.

You’ve said this in countless comments. Airlines have also long expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of Hawaii’s airports. Problems cited include poor design, dilapidated facilities, broken luggage movers and frequent power outages. These inefficiencies in airport operations continue to negatively impact the travel experience for both visitors and residents of Hawaii.

The pursuit of an independent Hawaii Airport Authority.

There is a growing belief that an independent airport authority must address these persistent system-wide problems. Such an authority would provide targeted management, dedicated resources and greater accountability. It would allow for faster decision-making and better strategic planning, free from the significantly broader responsibilities currently under the HDOT.

While the appointment of Curt Otaguro as chief and deputy director of Transportation for Airports is a step forward, it is difficult to imagine how it will result in the transformational change needed to address the chronic problems facing Hawaii’s airports . It seems inevitable that Hawaii will need to establish an independent airport authority to achieve meaningful improvements. Until then, administrative changes like these may just be a band-aid for much deeper problems.