Jan 22, 2024

Gutierrez: Something’s got to give

Håfa Adai!

Today’s consolidated airline corporations must strike a delicate balance between operational efficiency and profitability. In the quest to meet costs, improve net earnings, maintain safety, and keep employees and passengers sufficiently incentivized to show up to work and buy flight tickets, something’s got to give.

While sacrificing maintenance and security is out of the question in a highly regulated trade like commercial flying, and while airlines must make money to stay aloft, sometimes carriers see little other option than to skim on certain passenger conveniences in order to make ends meet or make higher profits.

But just as airline executives are compelled to make timely, critical decisions between tough choices to keep their liveries winging steadily in the black, travelers must balance their need to ride with one carrier against the backdrop of what they’re willing to tolerate.

As passengers, we’re fed up with the way we’re forced to chase down our luggage before we can hop the next flight to the U.S. mainland while in transit through Honolulu.

We’ve had enough with racing through concourses across Daniel K. Inouye International Airport to retrieve and recheck our bags, only to race back to departures in time to catch the connecting flight to Los Angeles.

For the elderly, disabled, their loved ones, and parents with small children in tow, the frustration has grown intolerable. Something’s got to give.

Now that certain of our fellow travelers have repeatedly brought our shared annoyances to the attention of vocal elected officials and have shown their willingness to fly from Guam to Asia to access nonstop flights to the states, it appears a workaround or two is finally in the offing to obviate some of the prevailing inconveniences in Honolulu.

Elected officials engage

Sen. Jesse Anderson Lujan is vice chairman of the 37th Guam Legislature’s Committee on Maritime Transportation, Air Transportation, Parks, Tourism, Higher Education, and the Advancement of Women, Youth, and Senior Citizens.

Sen. Lujan bears a distinguished record of pushing for healthy competition in the Asia-Pacific segment of the global airline industry that serves Guam. And he does so in ways that encourage the opening of new routes and choices for passengers and air cargo shippers in an environment of improved compliance, higher safety, and more affordable pricing.

It came as little surprise, then, that Sen. Lujan should take the lead when Guam-to-Honolulu flyers sought a proper redress of grievances. After bringing pressing passenger concerns before top management at United Airlines, the only carrier that flies nonstop between Guam and Honolulu, and to the attention of the governor of Hawaii, the Hawaii State Legislature, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and U.S. Transportation Safety Administration, Sen. Lujan finally found his opening.

During a visit with USCBP officials in Guam, Sen. Lujan, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, Speaker Therese Terlaje, and Airport Executive Manager John Quinata discovered that TSA had offered airline operators an additional baggage recheck area for transiting Guam passengers, apparently positioned closer to the Honolulu Airport’s departures area.

But, for some unknown reason, UA has reportedly yet to assert its claim to this more accessible facility for its in-transit customers.

Sen. Lujan has properly sought answers and reported his findings and conclusions publicly to foster accountability in a situation that has grown unbearable for passengers, many of whom are hazarding health and expense just to recheck and re-board.

Likewise, in his capacity as Guam’s only elected delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman James Camacho Moylan is seeking answers and solutions. Moylan reports that he has met virtually with UA corporate, following talks with various federal officials on how to improve existing transit protocols for Guam travelers passing through Honolulu.

In fact, Moylan says he is committed to negotiating with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for passenger access to a baggage claim closer to arrivals.

For the record

Both Lujan and Moylan’s efforts are in the spirit of the way Guam-Honolulu-Mainland transit used to be: disembarkation, customs clearance, and next-flight boarding within close proximity of one another for convenient baggage claim, recheck, and catching the next flight to the states, without ever having to leave arrivals.

The headway your elected representatives are making is also in step with the groundwork then-Airport Executive Manager Jerry Yingling and I laid in the mid-to-late 1990s to clear the way for nonstop flights from Guam to the U.S. mainland, when I was governor of Guam.

Jerry and I were able to leverage Destination Guam’s status as an unincorporated United States territory to direct Federal Highway funds towards lengthening Runway 6L/24R from 10,000 to 12,000 linear feet at A.B. Won Pat International Airport, a compliance requirement for nonstop flights to and from the continental 48.

After many years of planning, administrative conformity work, and construction expenditures totaling over $70 million, the designated runway extension finally became fully operational on June 25, 2015, according to Guam International Airport Authority’s own online records.

But, now going on nine years, United Airlines has yet to launch a single commercial nonstop flight from Guam to the West Coast. If United Airlines can fly nonstop to multiple destinations in the U.S. mainland, why not Guam to the Pacific Seaboard?

Perhaps the present stopover arrangement is more remunerative for UA and the Honolulu Airport. But here again, it is incumbent upon leading international airlines and international air hubs to strike an equitable balance between profitability and the interests of the public they serve.

This is especially true in light of the $7.491 billion “Tier 1” U.S. Treasury loan that United accepted pursuant to section 4003(b)(1) of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in 2020; as well as the constant federal guidance and assistance Daniel K. Inouye International receives as one of the world’s busiest airports, welcoming tens of millions of passengers each year, hosting eight federal government compliance agencies, and sharing runways and taxiways with Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam.

To say that either of these giant air service entities lacks sufficient support to improve transit services for the passengers they host is to strain credulity.

Interim solutions

But in the name of the possible, let’s assume that air routing services between Guam, Hawaii, and the mainland do improve progressively, without further unwarranted delay. After rerouting baggage claim closer to the point of departure for connecting passengers, but prior to the establishment of a nonstop flight from Tiyan to the West Coast, an intermediate workaround is still within reason.

Assuming Guam officials can successfully negotiate the applicable details with federal compliance agencies, passengers embarking from Guam and transiting through the Honolulu Airport should reasonably be able to pre-clear their luggage at A.B. Won Pat International, so it can simply be checked straight through Honolulu with no need to hassle flyers with rechecking there at Inouye International.

This arrangement would hinge on one of two outcomes. Either Customs and Border Patrol grants Guam Customs and Quarantine Agency authority to clear passengers and their luggage in Guam in lieu of clearance in Honolulu, or CBP sends additional personnel to Guam to handle the job themselves.

Thankfully, Congressman Moylan also indicates he and his office are assessing this possibility through all relevant channels and authorities.

Why we care

The Guam Visitors Bureau seeks to help improve flight experiences for all passengers, inbound and outbound, and not just foreign guests taking their holidays here. Bettering the overall Destination Guam experience for every stakeholder is critical for consistency throughout the regional travel industry.

Each of us wants to stay as proud as we possibly can be to live, work, and take holiday in and out of a modern-day Destination Guam. And we deserve nothing less than the optimal standards possible for all of us who represent our island’s best interests at home and abroad.

United Airlines has made herculean strides to smooth out the inevitable rough edges that accompanied its buyout and absorption of Continental Airlines into its own ranks almost a decade and a half ago.

And the consolidated carrier has continued to innovate its offerings through route maintenance and expansion, sustainability development commitments, and revitalized passenger and cargo services, even through devastating setbacks such as typhoons, COVID, and economic downturns.

But this highly reputable airline also depends on the active, qualified feedback of its employees and passengers, as well as the local and sovereign governments presiding over the destinations where the carrier operates.

As passengers, we owe it to ourselves and fellow travelers to demand the best flight experiences that the realm of the possible can render.

GVB thanks the frequent flyers who have shared their travel safety and in-transit convenience concerns with our island’s elected officials to help bring about change not only for themselves but for the greater good—in the root traditions of UA’s predecessor, Continental Micronesia.

“Air Mike’s” fine reputation as Guam’s hometown airline set a high standard for all carriers that fly to and from our destination. The more closely Guam-ported carriers can match the extraordinary breadth and depth of Continental Micronesia’s once-upon-a-time commitment to customer satisfaction at all levels, albeit in line with today’s economic challenges, the better off all participants will be in terms of performance, safety, satisfaction, and profitability.

Truly, Continental “Air Micronesia” was our hometown carrier. If UA wants to be known as Guam’s hometown carrier, they must emulate Air Mike’s care and compassion. Gosh, how so many, many people miss the airline with a heart!

By; Carl T.C. Gutierrez

Former Gov. Carl T.C. Gutierrez is the president and CEO of Guam Visitors Bureau, Guam Permit Czar, and chairman of the Governor’s Economic Strategy Council. Send comments or questions to GVB at communityrelations@visitguam.org.

Source: Pacific Daily News