SANTA MARIA, CA — One normally does not associate aloha or mahalo with California.  A small Hawaiian-based airline called Mokulele wants to change that.  The self-proclamined “Hawaii’s Favorite Island Hopper” is looking to become California’s Favorite Community Hopper.

Hawaiian native Kawehi “Rebecca” Inaba founded Mokulele Flight Service in 1994.  By 2005, the airline was operating charters and sightseeing trips using a fleet of three Piper Navajo Chieftains. Throughout the 2000s, the airline operated Cessna 208s under the go!Express and Aloha Cargo Express banners.  In 2011, Mokulele became family-owned when current CEO Ron Hansen purchased the airline from Mesa Air Group.  Based in Kona, the airline currently employs 250 people.

Mokulele arrived in California on May of this year flying two Cessna 208 Grand Caravans, providing Essential Air Service flights between Imperial/El Centro (IPL) and Los Angeles International (LAX).  At LAX, Mokulele operates from Terminal 6, allowing for connections without leaving security to interline partner Alaska Airlines as well as other south complex airlines of Delta, American, and United.

Mokulele expanded to a third California destination earlier this month. Service between LAX and the Central Coast city of Santa Maria (SMX) officially began on October 10th. The Santa Maria Valley is located 75 miles north of Santa Barbara, 170 miles north of Los Angeles.

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A population of 137,000, agriculture, oil production, and the military/aerospace are some of the area’s largest economies. Nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base alone employs 4,700 people. A large number of wineries in the area is also a draw for tourism.

Filling the Void

Skywest Airlines retired the Embraer 120 Brasilia in May 2015 with the final flight flying from Santa Maria to LAX.  The ubiquitous 30-seat turboprop was a mainstay of commuter service.  But without a direct modern replacement, many smaller communities throughout the west coast lost airline service.

Seeking an opportunity with the void left by regional powerhouse Skywest, airlines such as Boutique Air, SeaPort, and Great Lakes entered Essential Air Service and rural markets with smaller eight- and nine-seat Pilatus PC-12s, Cessna Grand Caravans, and Beech 1900Ds.  In Northern California, PenAir entered the market using larger 30-seat Saab 340s.

In January 2016, SeaPort abruptly ended service to California as well as several other states, citing a pilot shortage.  The airline ultimately shutdown all operations in September.

Imperial was one of those cities impacted by SeaPort.  Mokulele was selected by the Department of Transportation on a competitive three-way bid answering an emergency order to provide air service there.  During the launch, airline president Rob McKinney said, “we’ve been invited to bring to California is exactly what made Mokulele Airlines such a success (in Hawaii) – highly competitive prices, convenient schedules, great service, and on time flights.”

In early October, Skywest ended service at Santa Maria, citing low passenger numbers.  The airline had been serving San Francisco (SFO) using 50-seat CRJ-200s under the United Express banner. Seizing the opportunity, Mokulele came to Santa Maria.  The airline believes its Grand Caravans can fulfill the community’s needs while maintaining profitability.

Airline president McKinney explained Mokulele’s strategy for California to Airways, “we are looking for routes to add to our LAX service that has had historic good traffic numbers but due only to the contraction in the industry now has less or no service.”  He continued, “we believe that we can be both a commuter alternative to the congested roads, as well as a connector to other airlines in LA.”

According to published reports, the airline is receiving free rent, free fuel flowage fees, and free landing fees during its first year at Santa Maria as part of the standard incentive package offered to new airlines.

Mokulele Operations

Mokulele currently operates 15 nine-passenger Cessna 208B and 208EX Grand Caravans between nine airports on Oahu, Maui, Molokai, and the Big Island of Hawaii with more than 120 daily flights.

Three Grand Caravans are deployed to California. Between IPL and LAX, the airline currently flies three or four round trips weekdays and two on the weekend. Between SMX and LAX, they operate four round trips weekdays and three on the weekend.

Mokulele California Destinations Map. (Credits: Mokulele Airlines)
Mokulele California Destinations Map. (Credits: Mokulele Airlines)

With a friendly aloha spirit and an opportunistic approach for growth, Mokulele’s distinctive red flowered tail and unique “Mahalo” radio callsign will surely become commonplace in California in the near future.