Mokulele Airlines (MHO, Kona) on January 13 takes over from Ohana by Hawaiian in operating the Essential Air Service (EAS) to the Hawaiian islands of Lanai and Molokai, according to a regulatory notice by the US Department of Transportation.

The move will suspend all operations by the Hawaiian Airlines (HA, Honolulu) subsidiary, whose flights to the two islands were operated by third-party carrier, Empire Airlines (EM, Coeur d'Alene Pappy Boyington).

This follows a regulatory notice published by the DoT on December 29 in which it confirmed it had granted a request filed by Hawaiian Airlines for an exemption from a 90-day advance filing requirement to suspend its EAS service to Lanai and Molokai.

From January 13, the Department said it would rely on Mokulele to provide unsubsidised EAS to the two islands. Basic EAS requirements would oblige Mokulele to provide a minimum of 12x weekly, scheduled round trips, using twin-engine aircraft.

Hawaiian Airlines had originally applied to suspend the services by November 1 due to plummeting travel demand to the islands caused by a 14-day COVID-19 quarantine applicable for travel from outside and between the islands; and because of provisions in its contract with its pilot union, which prevent the airline from offering a third-party carrier service when inter-island flights are severely reduced.

According to the DoT notice, at the time of the filing, Hawaiian was providing unsubsidised EAS with up to 4x daily round trips from Honolulu to Molokai, and up to 2x daily rotations from Honolulu to Lanai, using 48-seat ATR42-500s.

Mokulele, a division of Southern Airways Express (9X, Memphis International), to date has been providing a service to the islands with a single-engine aircraft and therefore did not qualify for EAS, the DoT said. However, Mokulele submitted a filing supporting Hawaiian’s notice, affirming it was prepared to increase its services to both islands in order to replace the EAS provided by Hawaiian, using unspecified twin-engine aircraft to meet basic EAS requirements, the DoT added. According to the Mokulele website, the carrier operates Cessna Aircraft Company (Wichita Cessna Aircraft Field) 208 EX Grand Caravans to Lanai City, Kalaupapa, and Ho'olehua, Molokai.

In a letter sent to Hawaiian employees on January 6, Hawaiian Airlines Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Jon Snook, confirmed the DoT ruling. He added: It is unclear when demand will recover sufficiently to allow us to return to Molokai, Lanai, or Kapalua in West Maui, or to reinstate all-cargo Neighbour Island service.”

The suspension was expected to result in 64 layoffs, according to a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) notice filed by Empire Airlines with the State Department of Labour and Industrial Relations in Honululu on December 1. Of these, 33 were pilots, 17 mechanics, 12 flight attendants, and two store clerks. Empire Airlines wrote in the notice that layoffs were expected to start around January 30 and happen in stages, depending on the need for workers as operations were suspended and aircraft were stored. “At this time, we consider this to be a temporary layoff; however, requirements for continued operations are out of our control, we cannot guarantee that this is not a permanent shutdown,” Empire Airlines Human Resources Director Pete Broschet wrote in the WARN notice. “At this time, we anticipate keeping a small group of employees to maintain the aircraft while in storage,” he said.