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A Mokulele Airlines branded Cessna 208 sitting in Imperial, Calif (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Trip Report: Flying Mokulele in the States

Essential Air Service (EAS) routes are vital to providing airline routes to small communities around the country. While some states have many cities that qualify, some have only one or two. The state of California currently has three EAS cities: Imperial, Merced and Crescent City.

I found myself looking through the list of EAS cities and which carrier serves them, and I came across an odd flight that just had to try for myself located in southern California, Los Angeles to Imperial.

While the route itself may not seem odd, it’s the carrier that serves the route that makes it a truly unique flight. That carrier? Hawaii-based Mokulele Airlines, with the Los Angeles to Imperial flight being the carrier’s ONLY route outside the state of Hawaii.

My experience started off on Mokulele’s website where I booked a route trip flight to Imperial. The website was easy to navigate and showcased pictures of scenery in Hawaii, which is where all of their flights operate, except the one I plan on taking.

Unless you live in Imperial or have family there, then you probably would never have known that they operate this route, as the website doesn’t do much in the way of advertising the route to the Californian City on their website. I decided to take the midday flight as it had a long enough turn around in Imperial that I could take the evening return flight and not have to spend a night.

After booking the flight I received the confirmation email and noticed on the booking it said: “Operated by Southern Airways.” Southern Airways acquired Mokulele back in February 2019 and announced they would keep the Mokulele brand alive in Hawaii, but made no mention of the California service.

Seeing the Southern Airways brand made me feel like the Mokulele name and brand would already be gone. I hoped this was not the case as I want to experience the true Aloha spirit in the lower 48 states.

Check-in 

Twenty four hours before my flight, I went to the Mokulele website to see if they offered online check-in and couldn’t find anything indicating online check-in, meaning I would have to give myself extra time at the airport for this the next day.

On the day of my flight, I got a text message around 9 a.m. from a Southern Airways representative trying to confirm if I was still planning on flying that afternoon. Seeing the “Southern” name in the text began to confirm my worries that I would no longer find the spirit of Hawaii on the mainland.

A Screenshot of the text I received from Southern Airways the morning of my flight (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

After confirming that I was still planning on flying, they inquired about what time I would approximately arrive as they didn’t want to staff the ticket counter the entire time due to COVID-19 and reduced passenger numbers.

I arrived two hours prior to departure at LAX Terminal 6 for check-in, and the agent was waiting for me when I arrived. Right as I walked in the terminal, I saw the Southern Airways signage beginning to take over the ticket as the Southern logo now sits above Mokulele’s. The ticket counter for Mokulele-Southern was in Terminal 6 and sat between Alaska Airlines and another smaller carrier named Boutique Air.

During check-in, I found out that if your carry on is over 15 pounds, it is required to be checked, with no exceptions. Luckily my backpack slipped in right under the wire at 14.5 pounds. Otherwise, I would have been required to pay $20 to check it. Being on a smaller-sized aircraft, he also inquired about my body weight.

He then handed me my boarding pass and directed me towards security and then gate 63. The bottom of the boarding pass, like my confirmation email, said “Operated by Southern Airways Express.” In the top left corner of the boarding pass was, again the Southern Airways logo above Mokulele’s.

The Mokulele-Southern Ticket Counter at LAX (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

During check-in, I found out that if your carry on is over 15 pounds, it is required to be checked, with no exceptions. Luckily my backpack slipped in right under the wire at 14.5 pounds. Otherwise, I would have been required to pay $20 to check it. Being on a smaller-sized aircraft, he also inquired about my body weight.

He then handed me my boarding pass and directed me towards security and then gate 63. The bottom of the boarding pass, like my confirmation email, said “Operated by Southern Airways Express.” In the top left corner of the boarding pass was, again the Southern Airways logo above Mokulele’s.

My boarding pass for my flight to Imperial, Calif. on Mokulele-Southern (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Unfortunately, Mokulele does not participate in the TSA-PreCheck program, meaning I’d have to go through the regular line with all of my camera gear and computer in the middle of the mid-day rush. It is a good thing that I got to the airport two hours prior, as it took almost an hour to get through security.

Gate

After getting through security, I began to head to gate 63. As I approached gate 63 I saw a sign that indicated I was to head to gate 65A for all Mokulele departures, which contradicted what the ticketing agent said.

The sign that showed the “Gate 65” information also pictured Mokulele’s California route map, which included a destination I didn’t know they served — Santa Maria, Calif. After a bit of research, I found out they stopped service to Santa Maria back in 2017, meaning that it’s been at least three years since they updated the sign.

Now being confused by the contradiction between the agent and the sign in the terminal, I headed to the nearest flight monitor to check where my flight would be located. The terminal monitor showed the Southern Airways flight would be located at gate 63, but had no mention of Mokulele Airlines at all.

The in-terminal sign indicating where Mokulele flights were located (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

The sign that showed the “Gate 65” information also pictured Mokulele’s California route map, which included a destination I didn’t know they served — Santa Maria, Calif. After a bit of research, I found out they stopped service to Santa Maria back in 2017, meaning that it’s been at least three years since they updated the sign.

Now being confused by the contradiction between the agent and the sign in the terminal, I headed to the nearest flight monitor to check where my flight would be located. The terminal monitor showed the Southern Airways flight would be located at gate 63, but had no mention of Mokulele Airlines at all.

The flight departure board in terminal 6 LAX, depicts Southern logos, but no sign of Mokulele (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

I understood the connection between Southern and Mokulele Airlines, but other passengers without prior knowledge might be confused. An older gentleman who was going on my flight seemed frustrated and confused as to where the flight would be leaving from. I asked him if he’d like to stick with me until the flight left, and that seemed to make him feel better knowing he wasn’t alone in his confusion.

Luckily, gates 63 and 65A are located right next to each other, so either way, I’d see the flight when they were ready to go. There were many monitors around the gate but none showed my flight. As boarding time came closer, still no word on what gate we would actually be departing out of, and the gate monitors continued to not show flight information.

Gates 65A and 63 at LAX Terminal 6, still no word at the time which my flight would depart out of (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Approximately ten minutes prior to scheduled boarding time a Mokulele-Southern representative made themselves present and announced they would begin boarding. I and the gentleman from earlier — yes there were only two of us — were escorted out of the doors at 63, and were told to board a bus that would take us to the aircraft.

The bus was fully decked out in Southern Airways colors, logos and looked very professional given they only operate one route our of LAX. Once aboard, the bus drove about five minutes east towards what the pilots referred to as the “Charlie 1 Parking Area” which is where the aircraft was parked and waiting for us.

The Southern Airways branded bus that would take us to where the aircraft was parked (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

As we approached the aircraft, I realized that the Mokulele logos and name were completely missing off the aircraft. The aircraft registered as N208BK is a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan that, according to the pilots, is owned by Southern Airways Express, although FlightRadar24 has no record of them having possession of the plane.

The aircraft had no logos on it whatsoever and had no color on it that matched either airline. The only labeling on the plane at all is a very small Southern Airways logo next to the passenger door, which isn’t noticeable until your up next to the aircraft.

A small “Southern Airways” logo on the aircraft adjacent to the entry door. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Even though there are only two passengers on the flight, they assigned us the back two seats on the aircraft. This gave me excellent views being located behind the wing on a high wing aircraft, I was able to see the landing gear from the seat I was sitting in.

The pilot gave a safety demonstration, and we proceeded to taxi to the runway. After a short two-to-three-minute taxi we were lined up on runway 25R and took to the skies. Being an unseasonably cool day, about 55 degrees Fahrenheit and overcast, we lifted off quickly into the Southern California skies only using about 1,200 feet of runway for takeoff, just as we were passing over the runway numbers.

Being in a slower aircraft departing LAX, it gave the passengers an excellent overview of LAX Airport. (Photo: AirlineGeeks| Joey Gerardi)

The Flight

The cabin of the Cessna 208 Grand Caravan was very spacious for an aircraft of this size. The flight didn’t offer much in terms of amenities, but that wasn’t a surprise, so I came prepared with some granola bars and a can of peanuts.

The interior cabin of the Cessna 208B felt considerably roomy given it’s a small aircraft (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

After taking off from LAX, we climbed slowly to our cruising altitude of 9,000 feet and hugged the California coastline until we passed over Orange County. We then proceeded to head in a more or less southeastern direction towards Imperial. During the initial turn out of LAX, passengers on the left side of the aircraft could see the San Bernardino National Forest in the distance.

The initial turn out of LAX, Passengers on the left side of the aircraft could see the San Bernardino National Forest in the far distance. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

The pilots did a good job of balancing the heat-to-air conditioning ratio during the journey, and I had a hard time not dozing off. As soon as it got too warm, the AC would switch on, and vise-versa.

As we departed the LA-area, the high wing aircraft gave the other passenger and me an amazing view of the houses below. In addition, we were able to see the landing gear out which is a rarity nowadays when flying on scheduled passenger flights.

A view of the landing gear from the passenger window of the Cessna 208B (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

As the flight progressed, the terrain below slowly changed from mostly flat with houses to mountainous terrain and eventually passed over a few different national forests. One such forest that was visible to the left side of the aircraft was the Cleveland National Forest.

Out the left side of the aircraft passengers could see the Cleveland National Forest (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

As we flew further inland, the landscape began to change from green and tree-covered to pale and desert-like.

As we flew further inland, the landscape began to change from green to pale and desert-like. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

I knew we were getting close to Imperial when the Salton Sea came into view. The Salton Sea is a 343 square mile endorheic (en-doh-ree-ik) lake located directly along the San Andreas fault line. The lake is located roughly 20 miles north of Imperial, Calif.

The Salton Sea came into view as we grew closer to Imperial, Calif. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

The desert landscape changed abruptly from pale and sandy to green farmland. Not more than five minutes after initially passing over farmland we were on the ground in Imperial.

As we began our approach into Imperial, the landscape abruptly changed from a pale desert to green farmland. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

As we taxied in, a plane parked next to the terminal caught my attention, one of Mokulele’s Cessna 208’s. This one was painted in the full Mokulele livery. After seeing the Mokulele livery, I began to wonder if this would be my aircraft to return to LAX.

A Mokulele-branded Cessna 208B next to the terminal in Imperial. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

After the engine powered down, I stepped out into the blazing 112-degree-Fahrenheit heat, a very drastic, almost 60-degree, temperature difference versus when I left Los Angeles.

Terminal

Following disembarkation, we were led inside the terminal building. Entering the terminal from airside was simple and led us right into the main lobby of the airport.

Signs within the terminal directing passengers to the rental car desks and check-in (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

The terminal had Hertz and Avis rental car companies located within, which was a huge surprise to me as I wouldn’t think an airport that can receive a maximum of 27 passengers a day would warrant two rental car companies.

On the other side of the terminal building was the check-in desk. This desk was completely void of all Mokulele Airlines symbols and logos and only featured the Southern Airways Express brand. I inquired about the re-branding to Southern, and the agent told me that they began switching logos back in the fall of 2019 and hope to have all Mokulele logos gone from the mainland U.S. by this December. They want to keep the Mokulele brand entirely within the state of Hawaii.

The Mokulele brand was completely gone from the Imperial check-in desk, leaving only the Southern Airways brand. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

As I had roughly three-and-a-half hours before my scheduled departure and not much elsewhere to walk around inside the terminal, I opted to take a walk out the front doors, once again into the 112-degree-Fahrenheit heat, to take a look at the front of the terminal building.

The front of the terminal looked clean and pristine, despite the hot and desert-like climate. Parking at the airport appeared to be free of charge, as I didn’t find any signs mentioning parking fees.

The front of the terminal building in Imperial, Calif. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

I ventured further out towards the airport sign and found something that looked more like you’re entering a shopping mall rather than an airport. The entrance sign was on the ground level, but just beside it was a sign about 20-feet up in the air that had signs for a local motel, a Mexican restaurant, and then beneath that is the sign that featured what service the airport offers.

The sign out in front of the airport looked more like what you would find at a shopping mall entrance rather than an airport. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

The sign depicting the flights the airport offers also had Southern Air logos and titles, but underneath that is very small writing that read, “Mokulele is now proud to be a Southern Airways Company,” which would be completely illegible if not for the fact I was standing next to it.

After being outside in the blistering heat for about 15-minutes, I was ready to end my exploring and head back inside. On the right side of the terminal building was a small sign that read “Airline Entrance,” which led you directly to the ticket counter inside.

This sign was adjacent to the door that led passengers directly to the ticket counter (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Since my next flight wasn’t due to even board for at least three hours, I decided to watch some television and take a nap in the entryway waiting area.

Roughly 20-minutes before scheduled boarding time my alarm rang, and I got ready to head back through security. Due to the very small size of the gate lounge in Imperial, passengers don’t go through security until boarding time.

The small waiting area just beyond security (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Boarding time was scheduled for 5:30 P.M., and two-minutes after boarding was supposed to begin, the TSA checkpoint finally opened. This is when I found out that I would be the only passenger onboard the flight back to LAX.

Immediately after going through security, I was led out to the same aircraft I came in on, the white and red Southern Airways aircraft with the small door logo.

I was lead out to the same aircraft I arrived into Imperial on (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Return Flight

Although I was the only passenger, I was given an assigned seat, the back right seat. Same as on the flight out, one of the pilots gave me a safety briefing, and we started up. As we were taxiing to the runway, I noticed the only thing that reminded me that I was on a Hawaii-based carrier: a hula girl bobblehead on the front dashboard of the plane.

I noticed the Hula girl bobblehead on the dashboard of the plane, this appeared to be the only thing that remained from Mokulele Airlines (Photo: AirlineGeeks. | Joey Gerardi)

After a short taxi to the runway, we gently lifted off the runway, 18 minutes early. After takeoff, I could briefly see Imperial Airport behind us until the aircraft turned east. We then flew just north of the U.S.-Mexico border for roughly ten minutes and climbed to our cruising altitude of 10,000 feet.

I could briefly see Imperial Airport behind us as we turned east (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

With the Imperial Airport being located just 12 miles north of the border, I could clearly see the line running through the desert out of the left side of the plane that represents the boundary between the two countries.

The straight dark line near the middle of the photograph is the United States-Mexican border (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

After flying along the border for roughly ten minutes, we turned northwest towards Los Angeles. As we got further away from the border and closer to the coastline, I could see the pale yellow landscape slowly turning back to green.

The landscape as it slowly changed from pale back to green (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Eventually, we passed over the Palomar National Forest, and as we came closer to Los Angeles, houses and buildings became closer together and the skies also became cloudy. The skies over Los Angeles were completely overcast, even more so than when I left earlier that afternoon. Although clouds are never fun to fly through, it was definitely something unique as the Los Angeles area usually has blue skies for most of the year.

The skies became cloudy as we got closer to Los Angeles (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

As we came into Los Angeles, we proceeded to make a very smooth landing at LAX on the runway adjacent to the one I took off from just six hours prior. We then proceeded to taxi back to the same parking area where we departed from and got back on the Southern Airways bus to the terminal.

After landing back at LAX, I got back on the Southern Airways bus which brought me back to the terminal (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

As my trip came to an end, I can only imagine what it was like along the route before the Southern Airways brand began to take over for Mokulele Airlines. Nonetheless, it was still a unique route, as it’s the only Essential Air Service route in the southern half of California.

Joey Gerardi
Latest posts by Joey Gerardi (see all)
Joey Gerardi
Latest posts by Joey Gerardi (see all)
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