Normally, I don’t attend press conferences, much less ask questions at press conferences, but everything about the Feb. 27 gathering at the Mayor’s Lounge, on the ninth floor of the Kalana O Maui building in Wailuku, was different. It was in response to the crash of an Maui Air charter flight–a Piper Chieftan–on Lanai the night before that killed three people and injured three more–five of whom were county employees.
“We do not know why the plane crashed,” Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa said, repeatedly tearing up. “We lost two of our own last night. One of them was a long-time employee who worked for us for decades. Another was a bright young planner.”
Two of the dead and two of the injured were members of the county Planning Department. A third survivor is employed by the county Corporation Counsel’s office. They were on Lanai yesterday for the Lanai Planning Commission hearing, and were headed back to Maui when the plane went down shortly after take off.
“We use this airline quite a bit,” Arakawa said at one point in response to a question. That would seem to be an understatement. According to Planning Department Deputy Director Michelle McLean, who spoke at the press conference, her department alone flies people to Lanai twice a month for hearings, and has been doing so for at least the three years she’s worked as deputy director.
For county employees, the crash was obviously a huge emotional blow. But it’s also not an isolated event. On Dec. 11, 2013, a single-engine Makani Air Cessna 208B Caravan crashed shortly after taking off from Molokai, killing state Health Director Loretta Fuddy. And a month before that, another Caravan, this time flown by Mokulele Airlines, made an emergency landing in Wailea after pilots reported engine trouble.
A few hours before the press conference, I called around a few sources at the county to get updates on the crash. One asked me if I was going to the conference. When I said yes, the source made a request.
“Would you ask a question?” the source asked. “Ask if the county is considering not using small planes anymore to travel to neighbor islands. People are scared.”
Another county source confirmed that county officials and employees make a lot of trips to neighbor islands by air, and there were a number of employees who were nervous about flying.
“Typically for Lanai, the County Council staff and members will take the ferry and stay overnight,” the second source said. “It’s expensive, I’ll give you that, but it’s a long-standing practice.”
So I asked the question at the press conference.
“We do send them by ferry as well,” Arakawa said. But given the fact that many meetings take place at night, and going by ferry would likely require employees to stay overnight on either Lanai or Molokai, he said many employees fly so they can “spend the night at home.”
After Arakawa finished and the press conference moved on, a woman who later identified herself as an employee of the Planning Department leaned over to me. “Thank you for asking that question,” she said. She later added that she’s flown a lot for work, and her colleagues aren’t happy with it.
It’s perhaps understandable that County Communications Director Rod Antone ended the press conference with the words “Safe travels.” A few minutes later, I asked Antone if there was any way to document just how many charter flights county officials typically make.
“I don’t know,” he said, making it clear that there were a great many flights. “There’s no county[wide] travel log.” But he said he’d look into it, though I haven’t heard anything by press time.
Photo of Piper PA-31 landing at Kahului Airport: redlegsfan21/Wikimedia Commons