The Hawaii Department of Transportation gave businesses at Dillingham (Kawaihapai) Airfield—including two skydiving operations, Pacific Skydiving and Skydive Hawaii—a six-month extension on eviction as it continues long-term lease negotiations. Before the pandemic, the drop zones—Oahu’s only skydiving operations—were among the busiest tandem skydiving operations in the world. The businesses previously had until June 30 to vacate the airfield; the eviction date is now December 31, 2021.
This reprieve is temporary positive news for a variety of business owners, including the hundreds of employees and private-plane users at the airfield that pre-coronavirus pumped an estimated $12 million to $15 million annually into the state economy. The state said the airfield operated at a deficit of nearly $1 million in 2019, but tenants say that includes costs for an old water system that supplies the nearby Air Force satellite tracking station, among other users (no fees are collected for its use). The DOT—which has been in charge of the water system for 50-plus years—has been aware of the leak since 2002.
The Dillingham airfield working group, which includes representatives from Dillingham businesses, AOPA, USPA and the Federal Aviation Administration, is optimistic about the extension, as the Army has committed to the Joint Use Agreement and long-term lease process.
However, though a positive development, the short extension is a confusing message to tenants about everyone’s commitment to the airfield, especially since the DOT is not currently renting out empty hangars to new tenants on the waiting list to create more revenue. Some see suppressing revenue as a method to close the airfield.
Tom Sanders, a USPA and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association member who currently owns Paradise Air Hawaii, a powered parachute flight school at Dillingham, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper, “Obviously, it’s a move in the right direction. It’s just too bad that we keep on taking baby steps.” With a wave of tourists headed to Hawaii now that COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted, Sanders says the airfield’s been busier than ever, even prompting a waiting list for customers.
USPA Director of Sport Promotion Shanon Searls says, “People are being driven out of the airfield by this looming closure date. The airfield is busier than ever, but how can they expand to accommodate demand if the only written instruction from DOT is movement toward closure?” Searls also explains that some tenants are currently being evicted due to financial hardship during COVID. “They have been unable to pay airport fees because state-ordered lockdown measures prevented them from doing business,” she said.
Airfield stakeholders have attended meetings on the issue every two weeks, and State Representative Lauren Matsumoto has been working diligently for the past year on continuing Dillingham Airfield civilian operations. The Army said it is working closely with the state and other agencies to identify the terms of a joint-use agreement and lease of 25 years. The Army executed 25-year leases in 1983 and 2009, but in 2012 it realized it did not have the authority to execute a lease beyond five years without approval from the secretary of the Army. This has resulted in a series of short-term leases, making the airport unable to receive federal grants to make improvements, including fixing the water-system leak.
The parties are currently working toward solutions regarding the water on the airfield. FAA Western-Pacific Region Manager Gordon Wong wrote, ““The FAA is committed to working with HDOTA to resolve this compliance issue. The FAA will not pursue placing HDOT in noncompliance with grant assurances on this specific issue so long as HDOTA is actively pursuing resolution to this situation, and there appears to be reasonable progress toward resolution. To be clear, the HDH water-system issue must be resolved on or before the end of the current lease with the U.S. Army.” The Dillingham working group is awaiting further definition on what those requirements are, as well answers to questions such as who will be responsible for the cost of fixing the leaking system.
Although the working parties are disappointed to see the closing date moved only six months to December 31, the extension is still a positive development and will provide more time to resolve the outstanding issues related to the lease. Stay tuned over the next six months for updates on this important issue.