Transfer of Power: How Kailua-Kona Became Hawai’i’s Main Gateway to the World

Overlooking Kona's airport (Photo: Ian McMurtry)

While airports that serve the same markets tend to get along, one almost always excels compared to the other. Chicago’s O’Hare and Orlando International Airport are two examples of airports that tower over their smaller counterparts like Chicago-Midway and Orlando-Sanford, respectively. However, in Hawaii on the main island of Hawai’i, it is the much smaller town of Kailua-Kona that has trumped the main town of Hilo. But how?

When the island started showing demand for an airport in the 1950s, the government of Hawaii was willing to overhaul the General Lyman Field outside of Hilo to be used for commercial operations. The airport would see it’s first official flight with Aloha Airlines serving the newly-converted airport following World War II. A terminal for Aloha to use would be completed in 1953.

Although the airport’s runway would be lengthened and jet service on Aloha and Hawaiian Airlines started, it would take the airport 14 years to land service to the U.S. mainland.  However, when that door opened, the demand for travel to Hawai’i skyrocketed.

United and Pan Am launched service to Hilo in 1967 and within the next five years, the airport would see service from Braniff International, Trans World Airlines, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Western Airlines, most of which had added Hilo as a secondary stop after making their original stop in Honolulu.

Meanwhile, 65 miles to the west, a new airport in Kailua-Kona was being built. The original airfield was being turned into a state park and the new airfield would be constructed 7 miles northwest of downtown Kailua-Kona on a 150-year old lava field. The new airport officially opened for service in 1971.

This, alongside events outside of the airport’s control, began the downfall of Hilo and the rise of Kailua-Kona. A tsunami had rocked the Hawaiian islands in the 1960s and most of the island’s eastern side resorts were totaled. As a result, these resorts moved to the other side of the island, where the property was cheap and the weather was nicer.

As a result, most of Hawai’i’s popular resorts such as Waikoloa Beach Marriott, Hapuna Beach Resort and Royal Kona Resort now lie on the west side of the island, much closer to the town, and airport, of Kailua-Kona. The west side of the island is also protected from rain, leading to nicer flying weather with the mountains of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea blocking rainclouds, leaving the west side of the island to see over 100 inches less of rainfall than the eastern territory.

Another restriction that drove airlines to look at Kailua-Kona over Hilo was the location of the airports respective to their city centers. Hilo suffered following noise abatement procedures that make aircraft avoid flying over the populated city center of Hilo to the west. As a result, all late night movements must depart and arrive at Hilo from the east to avoid flying over the city.

As resorts and airlines moved west through the 1980s, Hilo International Airport started to see gates open up while Kailua-Kona was growing more crowded. By the mid-1990s, the east side airport had no direct flights to the mainland United States and the only flights being offered were on Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Airlines, who only flew to Maui and Honolulu.

With a decreasing passenger count and cruise ships providing the only major source of income on the east side, most aerial sightseeing companies would join the commercial airlines and move across the island. While Blue Hawaiian still stores a few Airbus EC-130 helicopters at Hilo, most of their operations are based in Waikoloa Beach on the west side of the island. Blue Hawaiian’s competitors, Big Island Air and Paradise Helicopters, use the regional office and ramp at Kailua-Kona for their operations.

With Kailua-Kona being the go-to for travel to the Big Island, Japan Airlines decided to join the list of airlines serving the airport when they announced that they would begin service to the island from Tokyo-Narita in 1996. It was the first route from the airport to Japan, a major milestone ahead of Hilo.

While the route would be suspended in 2010 following the restructuring of JAL, the airline would reinstate the flight using its Boeing 767-300ERs in 2016. To compete with JAL, Hawaiian Airlines started offering their own Tokyo-Big Island flight that operates four times weekly using Airbus A330s flying into Tokyo-Haneda.

Hilo has since seen a small rebirth since the turn of the millennium, with various carriers offering to connect the town of 43,000 to the U.S. mainland. The first attempt came in 2006 when ATA Airlines offered an Oakland-Hilo route that would be flown with the airline’s Boeing 737-800 aircraft.

The route had shown some potential, especially since ATA would provide the larger Boeing 757-200 on the weekends. But that would not last as both ATA and regional carrier Aloha would suspend all operations in 2008, leaving the city with just Hawaiian Airlines for air service.

The history the airport and the shift towards Kailua-Kona very much shape the airport today. Hilo has seen mainland service established, this time on United Airlines. The route, Los Angeles-Hilo, was started by Continental Airlines and is currently flown five-times-weekly using either Boeing 737-800s or 737-900ERs.

Currently, the only other service offered is through Hawaiian Airlines, who offers 16 flights a day to Honolulu and two more to Kahului. At most, Hilo will see two or three of the airport’s seven gates in use at a time.

Meanwhile, across the island, Kailua-Kona is expanding to meet demand. The airport has 9 airlines offering service to 13 North American cities alongside the Japan and Hawaiian Airlines flights to Tokyo. Inter-island travel is also more prosperous than in the big city, with Hawaiian offering 22 flights a day to Honolulu, three flights to Kahului, and two flights to Lihu’e.

Flying to Honolulu, Kahului and Kapalua can also be achieved through Mokulele Airlines, which offers the service alongside their flights to Waimea using Cessna 208 Grand Caravans. Kailua-Kona will also see service increases soon with Southwest Airlines announcing that Kailua-Kona is one of the four cities they will serve in the islands.

With needs for expanded customs services and the airport currently a single story outdoor terminal, the Hawai’i State Department of Transportation (DOT) hopes to add a second level to the airport for international arrivals. The airport currently operates with two open-air concourses consisting of six gates. However, a $75 million revamp will consolidate them into one terminal.

The two-story international concourse will also provide the first jetbridge for Kona. However, the airport wants to maintain as much of the open air experience as possible, so most of the current waiting areas will be expanded to alleviate the crowded terminal, which is currently serving six times as many passengers as it was intended to. The DOT is also widening local Highway 19 from two lanes to four in order to streamline traffic flow around the airport.

Although Hawaiians predicted that the demand for travel to the island would increase over time, especially with the addition of ETOPS for smaller Boeing 737s and Airbus A321s, not many could have predicted that the much smaller town of Kailua-Kona would dethrone Hilo International Airport.

However, the increase in demand to Kailua-Kona as a gateway to the resorts of Hawai’i Island has quadrupled the city’s size, as well as given the small town the title of being the gateway to Hawai’i. And with more changes to its airport coming soon, it appears Kailua-Kona has accepted its role quite well.

Ian McMurtry

Ian McMurtry

Ian has been an avgeek since 2004 when he started spotting US Airways Express planes at Johnstown Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Wichita and enjoys spotting planes in Kansas City and Wichita as well as those flying at high altitudes over his home. He is a pilot with more than 40 hours of experience behind a Cessna 172, Diamond DA-20, and Piper PA-28. He flies Southwest Airlines on most of his domestic flights and Icelandair when flying to Europe. Ian’s route map spans from Iceland and Alaska in the north to St. Maarten in the south. He is a student at Wichita State University, where he will study aerospace and mechanical engineering.
Ian McMurtry