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Car agencies cut fleets with tourists on decline  Mar 31, 2009

KAHULUI - With fewer tourists vacationing on Maui, car rental companies have decreased their fleets - some by double-digit percentages, leaving renters scrambling to find available vehicles.

"We probably won't come (to Maui) until June, if we can get a car over there," said John Farmer, of Portland, Ore., who visits Maui five times a year.

Farmer was planning a March visit but said cars were sold out at his usual rental agency, Alamo Rent A Car. He also couldn't find cars at National Car Rental and Avis Rent A Car. Hertz Rent A Car was offering a rental at $500 a week, which Farmer said was too much to pay so he canceled his trip.

Oahu resident John Naughton and his wife were trying to find a rental car on Maui in February so they could attend a special ceremony in Hana to remember the crew members of the Sarah Joe, a lost boat from Hana that Naughton found years later on a remote atoll.

"Several of us were trying to get over there and get cars. My wife and I had a big problem: We couldn't find cars anywhere," he said.

Naughton said his wife, who works in the travel business, called Hawaiian Airlines, which helped them get a rental from a national chain.

"I never had a problem before," he said.

Terryl Vencl, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau, said bureau officials are aware of the rental car shortage and are working on the problem.

"Obviously, visitors need a car in a destination such as Maui.We are hoping that the situation is remedied soon and always stand ready to assist if we can," she said.

Apparently, Maui isn't the only place where the rental car pool has shrunk. Rental car chains said it's also a trend elsewhere.

Alice Pereira, a spokeswoman for Avis and Budget Car Rental, said in an e-mail that, in response to lower demand, the companies have also decreased their fleets "everywhere, not just Maui."

"There's no secret that the economy has had a dramatic impact on tourism to the islands," said Chris Payne, senior manager of corporate communications for the Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group. "With fewer vacationers, we've had no choice but to cut fleet in order to remain profitable and be able to serve customers to the area."

In an e-mail, Payne said Dollar Rent A Car Systems and Thrifty Car Rental decreased their fleets on Maui by a double-digit percentage, but he said he couldn't be more specific because such information is proprietary.

Adjustments to the fleet began in the second quarter of 2008, following and as a direct result of last year's shutdowns of Aloha Airlines and ATA, he said.

Payne compared the drop in business with falling hotel occupancy rates. But unlike hotels that can't "unload" rooms, car rental companies can lower their inventories and are fortunate to be able to make such "nimble adjustments," Payne said.

"If we had not cut fleet consistent with decreased traffic, we would have had to dramatically cut pricing to the point that it would have a negative impact on our business," he wrote.

"Our fleet size is continually adjusted to correlate to customer demand," wrote Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which also owns National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car. "In addition, we are positioned for - and committed to - future growth in Maui."

Alamo plans to launch service on Molokai in June and hire locally for the operation, said Alamo Vice President and General Manager Paul Kopel.

A Hertz official did not respond to an inquiry last week.

Kim Schauman of Oahu received rides from friends and borrowed cars after she couldn't find a rental car on Maui over the President's Day weekend in February.

"I was really surprised to not be able to find a car to rent on Maui, especially since all reports pointed to lower-than-usual hotel occupancy rates," she said via e-mail.

She said she tried and searched for cars on Dollar, Hertz and Alamo Web sites, but found nothing. A smaller rental car company, Word of Mouth Rent-A-Car, was also booked, she said.

Schauman found a flight-and-car package with Hawaiian Airlines, but it would cost her $158 plus tax to rent a car for a day. That was too expensive, she said.

Schauman, who is with the nonprofit group Hawai'i Council for the Humanities, was heading to Maui to attend the opening of the exhibit "Key Ingredients: America by Food" at Maui Community College.

"If I had just wanted to travel to Maui for vacation, I probably would have canceled my plans when I couldn't find a car to rent," she said.

Farmer warns that the lack of rental cars could be another hit for Maui's visitor industry, which is already suffering.

"People won't come over if they can't get a car," he said.

Car agencies cut fleets with tourists on decline
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