Prior to World War II construction of an airport at Kailua, Kona suitable for transport operations had been advocated by the community and government officials. An area parallel to the beach, previously used for small aircraft operations, and known as Kailua Airstrip, was determined to be the only suitable area in the vicinity. It was near the town of Kailua.
The 1947 Territorial Legislature, which created the Hawaiian Aeronautics Commission, took cognizance of the need for an airport in West Hawaii by officially designating the proposed location as Kona Airport. The Kona project received high priority with the Hawaiian Aeronautics Commission which held two hearings at Kona during its first biennium.
Surveys were made and plans prepared by the Territorial Department of Public Works, and in May 1948 bids were opened for construction of a runway 100-feet wide by 3,500-feet long and paving of other areas. The low bid was $255,865 for this phase of the project. Work was started June 10, 1948 with a completion date of January 3, 1949. From the beginning, the project was plagued with delays due to many factors, some of which were no fault of the contractor.
Bids were first opened for terminal building construction on January 7, 1949. The low bid of $49,000 was considered too high and was rejected. On March 12, 1949, a bid of $27,234 was accepted for this project and construction started April 1, 1949.
Opening ceremonies for the new Kona Airport were held on July 10, 1949. All scheduled and non-scheduled airlines within the Territory participated along with the Air Force, Navy, Civil Air Patrol and many private plane owners. The entire Kona community joined with the HAC to make the occasion a success. Others represented were the Civil Aeronautics Administration, Territorial Department of Public Works, several of the overseas airlines and many of the Territorial Legislators who were responsible for the appropriation of funds with which the airport was constructed.
In May 1950, approximately 5,000 linear feet of fencing was installed to keep cattle off the operating areas.
Work was started June 21, 1950 to extend the runway to 3,800-feet. Grading and paving of the extension and additional areas were completed at a cost of $166,411.
In February 1951, temporary runway lights and a rotating beacon were installed and the runway extension completed.
The accessibility to Kona provided by air service through the airport stimulated tourist travel there, with attendant development of hotels. Air freight service provided a market in Honolulu for Kona produce. The unprecedented development of the area created a demand for a longer runway to accommodate larger aircraft.
Extension possibilities of the runway dictated an extension of 500-feet toward Kailua and 600-feet toward the southeast. Bids were opened in September 1953 for this project, but extension toward Kailua met with strenuous opposition due to the alleged encroachment on hotel planning. The contract was held up and the project restudied.
A public hearing was held in Kona on October 17, 1953. Local opinion was divided and the Board of Supervisors presented a resolution opposing a delay in constructing the extension.
In January 1954, a taxpayer lawsuit was filed to restrain the contractor from proceeding with the work. Further studies were undertaken to determine the feasibility of undertaking the necessary extension to the southeast end of the runway. Various delays were incurred in engineering work as well as in obtaining CAA approval and participation.
This participation had not been settled by November 1954 when a mainland industrialist became interested in the development of the Kona area as a tourist mecca. His plans would entail the complete relocation of the Kona Airport. Investigations both as to physical and legal aspects of such a project were underway in 1955.
In 1955, Kona Airport was comprised of 120 acres of land. It had one paved runway, 11-29, which was 100-feet wide and 3,800-feet long. Scheduled carriers were Hawaiian Airlines, Ltd. and Trans-Pacific Airlines. There was also non-scheduled service.
The airport consisted of a Passenger Terminal, Ground Transportation, and a Parking Lot. Its aeronautical services included a parking apron, rotating beacon, runway lights, 80 octane fuel, airplane hangar, and Crash-Fire equipment.
It was more than 14 years later when ceremonial charges of dynamite signaled the start of work for the new Keahole Airport in West Hawaii on May 27, 1969. The new airport would replace Kailua-Kona Airport and be located 7 ½ miles north of the old airport.
The FAA's Control Tower at Keahole was dedicated on April 21, 1970 and became fully operative on May 1
The new airport was dedicated at its current site on July 1, 1970 and received a beautification award from the FAA on May 6, 1971.
United Airlines began direct flights to Keahole Airport on September 7, 1983.
Infrastructure work began in 1983 at the airport for additional roads and utilities, as well as a new maintenance facility. In 1986, a new ramp apron and taxiways were constructed on the North Ramp.
The Master Plan for Keahole Airport was completed in December 1987 and focused on the development of the airport for expanded overseas activity. Design began for expansion of the terminal by three gates, increased parking facilities and to lengthen the runway from 6,500 feet to 9,500 feet.
The Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center was dedicated at Keahole Airport in 1990. The museum houses space memorabilia of the late astronaut.
Also in 1990, four lei stands, a gift shop and a Visitor Information display area were constructed.
Construction of additional renovations began in June 1991. These included converting the old Aloha Airlines Cargo building into office and storage space for airport tenants and installing a new mechanical baggage claim device.
In 1991, a new $1.5 million cargo building and the renovated ground transportation facility opened.
The Hawaii State Legislature changed the name of Keahole Airport on April 26, 1993 to Keahole-Kona International Airport.
Runway 17-35 was extended to 11,000 feet to allow fully loaded wide-body aircraft to take off fully loaded. The runway was dedicated on February 4, 1993. This is the longest runway at a Neighbor Island airport in Hawaii.
A Cargolus B-747 was the first long-range flight to Keahole, arriving from Europe on February 14, 1994. It carried equipment for filming of a movie. Mainland wide body service began in March 1994.
Work began on December 5, 1994 on the Terminal Improvements, Phase I, at Keahole to expand the gate/hold areas and construct a baggage claim unit at Terminal 1. Work also began at Keahole to widen the peripheral road from three to five lanes, expand the parking lot by 150 stalls, and provide new landscaping at the north and south ends of the parking lots.
An Interim Federal Inspection Service Facility opened at Keahole in March 1996. The facility is used for inspection of international flights by various federal agencies.
Keahole-Kona received its first international flight from Japan on June 2, 1996.
In 1997, work began on Phase II of the Terminal improvements. The work included apron lighting, security improvements and enlargement of the passenger waiting area.
Keahole-Kona International Airport was renamed Kona International Airport at Keahole on June 16, 1997 by the Hawaii State Legislature.
Phase II Terminal improvements were completed in June 1998. Work began on Phase II improvements in September 1998.
The theme for cultural emphasis for Kona International is one based on King Kamehameha I.