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Kona airport expansion underway: Officials break ground for terminal project

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KEAHOLE — Constructed in the 1970s, the Kona airport was built to welcome 500,000 travelers per year. Several decades later, state and airport officials are moving forward with the facility’s first expansion to accommodate the 3 million people now filtering through the airport annually.

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KEAHOLE — Constructed in the 1970s, the Kona airport was built to welcome 500,000 travelers per year. Several decades later, state and airport officials are moving forward with the facility’s first expansion to accommodate the 3 million people now filtering through the airport annually.

On Wednesday, airport officials and state dignitaries gathered at the newly renamed Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport to celebrate the start of the terminal modernization project that will expand the facility and provide a more user-friendly experience for Big Island residents and visitors.

Gov. David Ige said he was committed to what he called a critical project for the airport.

“It will improve passenger experience for nonresidents and residents alike,” Ige said, adding that investing in quality infrastructure can make a difference to the Hawaii community. “We will continue to make those investments that will improve quality of life for Hawaii Island.”

Chauncey Wong Yuen, state Department of Transportation Airport Division Hawaii District manager, said the travel hub has been refurbished and upgraded throughout the years but it hasn’t been expanded.

At the cost of $75 million, the project will tear down a building previously used as the Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center for 24 years to make way for the expansion and improvements.

Improvements include one centralized security area — a six-lane passenger screening checkpoint building to expedite the processing of outbound passengers and reduce the time spent in line.

Baggage screening also will undergo improvements as the new in-line baggage handling system will employ an Explosive Detection System, which will improve work efficiency for the Transportation Security Administration and airport operations.

Additional features include new restrooms in the public area before screening and in the terminal areas. The project also includes two covered bag drop areas for added convenience.

State Rep. Cindy Evans, D-North Kona, North Kohala, South Kohala, said the airport terminal is like a bus terminal for island residents who use it to travel between the islands.

The project is important, she said, because of the wear and tear put on the facility. The airport recently saw the return of international flights with a new route between Kona and Japan that began operation in December.

“I’m very hopeful in the modernization that it represents the local feeling here,” Evans said. “This project is going to take a lot of effort. It’s been a long time coming — it’s what we want.”

Mary Wheeler, 67, of Ocean View was waiting to get picked up from the airport by her husband Wednesday. She said she hadn’t flown out of the airport in a few years and was surprised at how busy it was.

“I can understand the expansion,” Wheeler said.

Despite the fast pace of the airport, the Ocean View woman said, she still thinks the facility and its staff are operating smoothly and adapting “pretty well” to the additional flow of traffic and people.

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The project is part of the state House’s budget proposal that would allocate more than $2 billion to capital improvement projects, including improvements to facilities at airports statewide, during the next two years. Upgrades at the Kona airport are slated to be complete in February 2019.

Email Tiffany DeMasters at tdemasters@westhawaiitoday.com.