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Makani Kai Air Charters

Makani Kai Air Charters provides air transportation to and from Molokai for the Topside Molokai tours. Tours depart from heliport near Honolulu International Airport on Oahu and Kahului or Kapalua airports on Maui. The Turboprop Cessna Grand Caravan and the twin engine Piper Chieftain aircrafts accommodate up to 9 passengers for your family or special group. Flight is shared but private air tours can be booked. Enjoy a tour on Molokai's unique island and fly over on Makani Kai Air. Ask agent for assistance if you would like to make it a private experience!

Tom Barefoot: Okay. Good morning. Welcome to this latest edition of Tom Barefoot's Tours Live. Read Full Transcript

Video Transcript

Tom Barefoot: Okay. Good morning. Welcome to this latest edition of Tom Barefoot's Tours Live. This is Tom Barefoot. In these segments, we deal with various vendors that we have throughout the state. We've got about 400 of them, so there's a lot of them out there that we deal with. The idea with this is to highlight individual vendors, and get a little bit better idea of what they do, and how they do it, and just get behind the scenes a little bit, than just being able to see the written word or a couple photographs. Today, we are going to be going to the island of Oahu, and we're going to be dealing with Richard Schuman of Makani Kai Helicopter Tours. Richard, are you there? Can you hear me?

Richard Schuman: I am. Aloha. Good morning.

Tom Barefoot: Okay. Good morning, Richard. We're going to ask you a few questions about some things, and try to find out a little bit more about you and the company. I would like to get a little bit into the tours that you offer, and the aircraft that you have, and about your safety and maintenance, I know you've got an incredible safety record, and a little bit about your staff, things like that.

Before we start this, honestly, I'd like to just get into this incredibly intriguing story about your history, which goes back well over 100 years at this point. I know that it has to do with your great-grandfather, Adolf Schuman, who came to Honolulu, evidently, I think it was 1893, at the age of 16. Somewhere shortly after that, he invented the Schuman Carriage Company, which dealt with building carriages, and farm wagons, and saddles, and whips, and all that sort of thing for horse and buggy-type thing.

Then, as the century progressed, this actually developed into what was the first automobile dealership in Hawaii. You dealt with Cadillacs, and Buicks, and Oldsmobiles, and General Motors cars. Everybody in the mid part of last century that was in Honolulu knew of this company, Schuman Carriage. This then evolved, coming to an apex probably about 20 years ago or so, where the great-grandson now, Richard, took over a company called Makani Kai Helicopters, and has developed it into this incredible helicopter company that we have in Hawaii. I know that's kind of the bare bones of it, but could you flesh that out for us? Tell us that story. That's just such an amazing thing.

Richard Schuman: Yeah. It is pretty intriguing. My great-grandfather did come here from Germany in the 1880s. In 1893, he did start a horse and buggy company, which turned into a Model T, then a Model A. Back there, in the turn of the century, from the livery stables, most of the car dealerships evolved from. My grandfather took over, then my father took over, and then I was help running the business for about 15 years, until my father passed away. In that time, the company continued to grow and grow and grow. One of the things I was able to do is to get into the helicopter business in 1996, when I got Makani Kai Helicopters.

It's been a nice growth here. It's a great business to share our islands with the visitors from all over the world. One thing I really like about our business is 99.99% of the people, we're able to give them a terrific tour of our island. They see the beauty of our island. They may see a whale. They may see a waterfall. The majority of them, it's the first time on a helicopter, so they themselves are going through some personal transformations by being in an environment that they're unfamiliar with, i.e., a helicopter. They have some apprehension, being able to see the beauty of our island. It is very emotionally ... People that get off these helicopters that so emotionally charged, that not only saw the beauty of our islands here in Hawaii, but they were able to overcome a little bit of fear of a helicopter. It's a terrific business to be in, where we personally touch people's lives in a positive way every day.

Tom Barefoot: That's very, very cool. Your tour company does tours primarily, almost exclusively, but primarily on the island of Oahu.

Richard Schuman: Yes, sir.

Tom Barefoot: I know that people ... We do helicopter tours on all the different islands, on Kauai, and on the Big Island, on Maui. There's fantastic things to see on the islands. On the Big Island, we've got the volcano, the Na Pali Coast, and so on, on Kauai, and Haleakala, on Maui. I think to some degree, Oahu gets a little bit of a bad rap in terms of what it has to see there. I know that there is a lot that happens there. It is the large population center, no question, of the Hawaiian Islands, a lot of people that are there. What I think that people don't realize is that there is so much in the outback, so to speak, or in the interior of the island, that is absolutely so beautiful and breathtaking, with no one around. This is where the filmed Jurassic Park, and a lot of the major studios have done things there because of that. Can you address that, in terms of just the island itself?

Richard Schuman: Yeah. I get asked that question quite often, about the difference in flying of the different islands. We do primarily to 99% of our tours on the island of Oahu. Some of the things, like you mentioned, Oahu has a lot of diversity. There's only one Waikiki Beach, and only one Diamond Head, and those are worldwide-known to the visitors. Then of course Pearl Harbor, the Arizona and the Missouri, you get to see those from the air in a really nice perspective. Then, when we make it around to the north side of the island, we do have that lush forest, those mountains and those waterfalls. Of course, we have the world-famous Waimea Bay, and the North Shore, where most of the surfing championships are held. You're right. The other islands, they have a lot of beautiful things to see, like the volcano and the Na Pali Coast, awesome things here in Hawaii. We offer a little bit of variety for the customers that fly here on Oahu.

Tom Barefoot: Right. Actually, let's talk a little bit about your tours. I know you've got 30-minute tours, 45-minute tours, 60-minute tours. You have doors-off tours. Without getting into the specifics of every single one, could you make some generalizations about the tours that you offer?

Richard Schuman: Yeah. We offer three distinct tours in lengths, and mainly, a lot of people spend a lot of money to come to Hawaii. It amazes me, when I talk to those in the senior age, from, I'd say, the Midwest, I get the chance to talk to them, and they're from, say, Iowa or Kansas, and they'll say, "We saved up our life savings. We're retired now. We have grandkids. We've saved up our life savings to come to Hawaii. It's been our dream since we got married 30, 40, 50 years ago." That in itself is touching. Understanding that helicopter tours are expensive, we try to offer tours and see the best parts of our island to try to fit most people's budget.

Two years ago, we started an adventure tour. We tapped into the Magnum P.I. theme. We have a helicopter that resembles the old Magnum helicopter, and we fly without the doors on. There's a certain part of the market, and they tend to be in the 20 to 30-year-olds, who want a little bit more adventure. They want to feel a lot of the wind blowing in their face. If it's raining, they get a little bit of wet, and their legs are right there at the edge of the door, so they get a little excited, and their adrenaline starts pumping a little bit more.

The majority of tours in the state of Hawaii are done in nice aircraft. They're air-conditioned. They usually have Bose headsets. They're climate-controlled. We're basically a very plush bus tour in the sky. That's what the majority of people seem to want, especially on their first time in a helicopter here.

Tom Barefoot: Right. You have actually two different helicopters that you use. The one is, it's referred to often as the AStar or the Eurocopter, jet-turbine, six-passenger AS350. That is the one that is primarily used I think by you. Then the other one is the one that you were just referring to. I don't know you if you call it the Hughes 500 anymore.

Richard Schuman: Yes.

Tom Barefoot: Okay, so it's a ... That's the one that's the Magnum P.I. one, kind of like the little bit more of the Maserati in the sky kind of thing, with the doors off and the real adventure situation. A person could choose one or the other. If we could just go into a little bit of the details of each of the helicopters. I know that the AStar is really, I refer to it, or I think of it as the gold standard of helicopters in the state, because it was developed specifically for the purpose of sightseeing. It's designed to be able to see out. It's got features that make it really easy and accessible for people, but easy to see out. If you could explain that one a little bit, the AStar, why it's a good helicopter to use.

Richard Schuman: Yeah, absolutely. The AStar is probably the best touring helicopter, because the way the seats are set up, there's two people in the front and four people in the back, and they're all facing forward, and they all have a great view from left, to front, to right. As a pilot is going towards these spectacular areas, everyone in the helicopter see the same thing at the same time. You get to sit next to your partners.

In the helicopter, those microphones they can talk to each other, so it is a nice, family, cozy event. Because the doors are on, it's quiet. They have air condition, so it's cool. Because the AStar is so smooth, it really, in the sky, when people are very amazed that these things are in the sky fly so smoothly, and what they perceived that the helicopter was going to be like, when they land, they're just blown away how nice it was. I think our industry has really come a long way. We went from a hot-dogging, excitement, Disneyland approach to providing a very professional tour. I think most of the companies here in Hawaii all do a great job giving a professional tour.

Tom Barefoot: Yeah. Yeah. The camaraderie among companies in the state is really ... Everybody knows everybody else and is welcome to lend a hand and that sort of thing. I know everybody cares about everyone else in the industry. That's cool. With regard to the Hughes 500, I know we talked about it just a minute ago a little bit, but what are the features of that that make it perfect for the doors-off experience?

Richard Schuman: Yeah. A couple things that are great about that particular helicopter is without the door, those who like photography, it gives you a little bit better edge, because you have no glass or plexiglass between you and your target. People who like photography, want to take a shaper image, the doors off is a really good platform. We find, as far as the industry, it's a smaller percent. It's the bungee jumper, parachute-type people who want to take that type of helicopter. They want to put their head in the wind. They like getting a little bit scared. It excited them. There's definitely a market for that, and it's proven. Every island pretty much has a doors-off type of tour. I think for those on their second or third helicopter ride, yeah, I recommend they go ahead and try it, because it's a nice thrill to have the wind blowing in your face. They're extremely, extremely save.

Tom Barefoot: Yeah. Yeah. There's really no difference in terms of that aspect to the others, except you don't have a door there, so it's like, "Oh my God. There's no door," but you're completely strapped in. I know the first time I was in one, I was blown away for the first minute or two. Then you get used to it, and then it's really, the outside is just right outside, and you really feel like the outside is the inside, and you really have that experience of being in Hawaii and really feeling it, even the temperature of the air and that sort of thing. It's not an experience probably for everyone, but for those that are seeking that kind of excitement, it's really a cool one.

Richard Schuman: Yeah. What I tell people who ask, "What would it be like?" I said, "Well, it'd be very like if you take your car at home, and you're going down the freeway at 80 miles an hour, and then you stop and put the top down. Now, you're in a convertible, and now, you're going down the highway at 80 miles and hour." It's that type of feeling, "Well, whoa. There's no roof above me, and there's wind coming around the windshield." That's kind of like [inaudible 00:14:48] they can comprehend what the differences would be.

Tom Barefoot: Yeah. Okay. I want to move to this area that is so important in this industry, and people need to know about it, but particularly with your company. I'm just going to go over a few things here, and I'd like you to talk about it. What I'm referring to now is safety and maintenance in general. Some things about your company is that you're one of the safest aerial tour operators in the nation. You are the only operator of your type in the US to be accredited by the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations. You have an unblemished safety record, never having experienced an accident or incident in any of your helicopter tour operations. You've got this statement about maintenance that you guys use, where you say, "Where others may use maintenance or may see maintenance as a necessary evil, we see it as an opportunity to go the extra step." That's the profile of you guys with regard to safety and maintenance, but could you get into that a little bit more?

Richard Schuman: I'm sorry. There's a helicopter going by ... The maintenance of their aircraft very seriously. They do a lot of factory training. They spend a lot of time training their mechanics. Because we all understand that people come from all over the world, and they want to see the beauty of the island, and they want to go home safe, and we understand that people put a lot of trust in us as operators to make sure that we take care of their families. A helicopter company that doesn't take maintenance seriously normally goes by the wayside pretty quickly.

In our particular company, we went to the international standards because it was an objective, and I wanted to see how we stack up with other aircraft operators in the country and in the world. It's an accredited program. You apply. They send auditors down. They go through every aspect of your company, whether it's reservations, whether it's pilot, pilot training, mechanics, how you operate. They score you to see if you rate with other companies across the country.

There are other programs, like T-O-P-S, TOPS, that does something very similar. The corporate jet market has something similar, where the consumer can look, and do a little homework and research, and see if the companies have spent the time to want to better themselves and get accredited. It's a nice thing, but I think whether they're accredited or not, I think all the helicopter companies in Hawaii do operate very, very safely, because we all understand that our friends and our counterparts in this industry directly affect our business. We are very cautious. We talk to each other, owner to owner. If we see something we don't necessarily like happening out there, we'll report it to the owners. We try to make sure everybody continues doing a great, safe job for the consumer.

Tom Barefoot: Well, I know you're fastidious about the safety issue, but that really extends to all other aspects of what you do. I've seen this over the course of years in the past. Even to things like just the location where you guys, where people come in the hanger, it's a very comfortable surrounding. The bus pickup, where you ... Almost everything happening in Honolulu, it's different than other islands. Most people get picked up. You can drive directly to the Makani Kai Air hanger, but in many cases, people don't have cars in Honolulu and they're picked up. I know that you have vehicles that you pick up people directly and bring them to the aircraft. These, I know you spend a lot of time just making sure that those are operational as well, and that they're comfortable, and air-conditioned, and that you have great drivers, and all that sort of thing. You really include in your program ... It's a lot more, in terms of maintenance and keeping up the helicopter company, than just the helicopters themselves.

Richard Schuman: You're absolutely right. I think the way I look at it, everything starts with the phone ring. From there, if we pick our people up on time, if our buses are maintained, the people have a great first impression when they get here, the facilities, the helicopter, they do a great tour, and they get back in a safe bus, and they get back to their hotels where they got picked up. We definitely look at the whole process, and everything in the process, from the time we greet that customer until the time we wave goodbye, it has to be flawless, because they spend a lot of time, and energy, and money to come to Hawaii.

Most people come here one or two times in their life. They'll spend a half a day or several hours with us, so it's important that we don't waste their time. I think you could have an excellent helicopter tour, and your bus overheats on the way back, they just ruined the tour, ruined their vacation. My philosophy with our customers is we're doing our part for the Hawaii industry. If we do our part, and they love Hawaii, they'll come back to Hawaii. We're just a part of a larger entity, trying to make sure that the people that leave us go back to where they came from and say, "Man, Hawaii was a terrific place. I had a beautiful hotel, the beaches, the helicopter ride." Everything they've done here, if they've had an excellent time, they'll tell their friends, and they come back to Hawaii. That's what we hope.

Tom Barefoot: Absolutely. You're a component of the whole, in the whole cog of the whole wheel. How about your staff? Can you say anything about your staff, [crosstalk 00:21:27] pilots, and everybody else that you deal with, that you have on your staff?

Richard Schuman: One thing I'm very happy about is my staff, I have a very, very low turnover. Something my grandfather and my father taught me is taking care of employees. When you say take care of them, doesn't necessarily you pay them the highest, but you need to be attuned to their personal needs. You need to make sure you cover their medical. You need to make sure you understand their family. If you understand what they're going through, it helps you help them. If you help them, and they appreciate your involvement when they're down, and they need some help, and you're able to give it to them as a boss or an employee, it helps.

I have a couple employees, one just retired over 20 years working for me. I have another one that's coming up on 21 years working for me. We have a lot of people in their double digit years working for me. What that allows us to do is allows us to give our customers a very consistent product and a consistent level of service. In that, I'm pretty happy. My team does a great job.

Tom Barefoot: Fantastic. I know they do. They have over the years. I know that you're all about doing the correct job, and you're also about giving back to the community. One thing that I know that you do on a regular basis, that you guys are involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. How does that work? What's that about?

Richard Schuman: Across the United States, children who have been given some time left to live, they go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. One of their wishes is say to come to Hawaii, and maybe see a dolphin, and maybe take a helicopter ride. When I started, it was 21 years ago, I was touched by that program. All Make-A-Wish children fly free. The organizations throughout all 50 states, if they get a request for a family wants to fly in a helicopter in Hawaii, we provide that. The child, I try to personally greet the child. The child gets to sit up front with the pilot. I'm very happy to be a part of making their life a little better.

Tom Barefoot: Yeah. Yeah. That's very wonderful. That really just rounds out the business profile that I see of your company, and all the attention that you place to every aspect of it. Giving back to the community, what a wonderful thing. Well, I think that that's all I wanted to get to. Is there anything else you'd like to bring up at this point?

Richard Schuman: I'm going to walk outside. The two helicopters have landed, so I'll just give you a walkup to those things.

Tom Barefoot: Okay.

Richard Schuman: It'll be a little noisy.

Tom Barefoot: Well, it's a helicopter.

Richard Schuman: I might not hear you too well.

Tom Barefoot: Okay. Yeah. There's the helicopter. It just landed, family in the back. Yeah. That's the logo for the Makani Kai Helicopters.

Richard Schuman: That's our AStar that holds six passengers. They're going to be taking off for a tour here in a moment. I'm walking over to the Magnum P.I. helicopter.

Tom Barefoot: Okay. Is this one [crosstalk 00:26:18] ...

Richard Schuman: Okay. Got the thumbs up.

Tom Barefoot: Oh, there goes the AStar leaving the pad. There she goes, off for a tour of Oahu. [inaudible 00:26:41] ... This is the Hughes 500. This is the Magnum P.I. version.

Richard Schuman: [inaudible 00:27:05] ... They're loading up some passengers.

Tom Barefoot: Well, we're lucky enough to see some passengers loading. Got here just in time for this.

Richard Schuman: I'm sorry, Tom. I can't hear you right here, but if you want to, I'll just film this little of them loading and waving, or something like that.

Tom Barefoot: That's good. Yeah. We got two people in the front and two people in the back, getting all strapped in. You can see there's the doors off, no plexiglass, nothing. You're just out there. Okay. Okay, Richard, can you hear me?

Richard Schuman: Okay. Yeah. I can hear you.

Tom Barefoot: Okay, Richard. Thank you very much for letting us get a look at those two aircraft that you had. I did want to get that in this interview. Anyway, I wanted to thank you very much for your time today, letting us know a little bit more about what you do, highlighting your service. We are glad, as a community, to have you in the activity community here in Hawaii. You do a great job. We look forward to you doing this for many more years.

Richard Schuman: Oh, thank you very much, Tom. I appreciate it. You have a great day. Aloha.

Tom Barefoot: Okay. Thank you, Richard. Aloha.

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