Groups fight to keep Dillingham Airfield open
Dilingham Airfield supports 130 jobs and generates $12 million a year in economic activity for the state, according to the Save Dillingham AirfieldÂ group, which is partnering with the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) to keep the Oahu airport open.
Businesses at Dillingham Airfield, also known as Kawaihapai Airport, offer visitors glider rides, skydiving, and flying lessons under a state Department of Transportation lease from the U.S. Army. The department has announced that it intends to end its lease four years early.
AÂ newspaper pollÂ that sampled public opinion on Hawaiiâ€™s economic prospects stressed the importance of the visitor industry in recovering from the â€œApril troughâ€ that slammed tourism and business transportation and triggered major statewide job losses as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
â€œThe University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization last month forecast that it will take more than three years â€” until after 2023 â€” for the state economy to regain the level it was at last year or even the year before,â€ the Star Advertiser reported on October 20.
Against that backdrop, it would be a â€œtravestyâ€ if Dillingham Airfield ended its run as a general aviation airport early, said state Sen. Gil Riviere (D-District 23) in a recent broadcast interview. The move would shutter 11 businesses that inject millions of dollars into the local economy.
â€œThereâ€™s just so much potential. Weâ€™ve got to save it,â€ he said.
The aviation sector has rallied around the airport since the state revealed plans to seek an early end to its airport lease that would otherwise expire in 2025.
But now the harsh impact of the pandemic on Hawaii has raised Dillingham Airfieldâ€™s profile far beyond the airport boundary as the community at large pins its optimism for recovery on drawing visitors back to Hawaiiâ€™s renowned attractions.
Time to save Dillingham Airfield, described as supporters as â€œNorthern Oahuâ€™s Gateway to the Sky,” is growing short. The scheduled closing date is June 30, 2021. The Save Dillingham Airfield support group recently warned that state officials plan toÂ take preliminary steps toward the shutdownÂ in January.
Riviere believes that the closure plan undervalues the airportâ€™s contribution to the communityâ€™s well-being and its starring role in Hawaii tourism.
“This is the number one drop zone in the world. More people jump out of airplanes at Dillingham than any place else in the world, so itâ€™s a travesty,” Riviere said.
Melissa McCaffrey, AOPA Western Pacific regional manager, said the next twelve weeks will be critical for airport advocacy.
“For more than nine months now, AOPA and the Save Dillingham Airfield group have tried to provide solutions to the Hawaii Department of Transportation, all of which include preserving the airfield as a joint civilian-military-use facility,” she said. “Unfortunately, Hawaii DOT has continued to move forward with their plans to prematurely exit out of their FAA Airport Improvement Program obligations and the lease with the U.S. Army, inevitably killing off the businesses and jobs at the now thriving airfield.”
McCaffrey urged aviation supporters â€œto be geared up and ready to assistâ€ on several possible fronts perhaps including submitting testimony to support a legislative strategy, contacting elected officials to advocate for the airport, and joining the airport-support group.
Riviere, in his news interview, added that despite the short timeline, he remained upbeat about the airportâ€™s chances to survive. He said three management companies have been identified that could take over airport administration from the Department of Transportation, which runs Hawaiiâ€™s public airports, if the state wants to opt out.
Both the FAA and the military would have to sign off on any closure arrangements which would require an ambitious project to restore the property to its original condition, he said.
Since 1939, AOPA has protected the freedom to fly by creating an environment that gives people of all ages the opportunity to enjoy aviation and all it has to offer. AOPA is the world’s largest community of pilots, aircraft owners and aviation enthusiasts with representatives based in Frederick, Md., Washington, D.C., and seven regions across the United States. The association provides member services including advocacy at the federal, state, and local levels, legal services, flight training, and safety programs, and award-winning media. AOPA specializes in making aviation more accessible to everyone. To learn more, visit www.aopa.org.