HCN: Essential transportation in rural Alaska is up in the air

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Uncategorized

This story originally published in High Country News.

In July, Megan Dean, preparing to give birth to her first child, needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment. It wouldn’t be easy: Dean lives in Unalaska, on the Aleutian Archipelago, 800 miles from the nearest obstetrician. Much of the 4,800-person town sits at the base of hillsides emerging from the Bering Sea, and with no roads connecting it to other communities, boats and planes are the only ways in and out.

Last year, Dean, who works at the Museum of the Aleutians, could have taken one of several direct daily flights to Anchorage. But this April, Alaska’s largest regional airline, Ravn Air, abruptly declared bankruptcy and closed, citing coronavirus-related revenue losses. That left Dean with limited options. To get to Anchorage now, she scours a community Facebook group for charter planes offering last-minute seats. At $675, the one she booked in July cost $224 more than the Ravn Air flight she took in March. (Her insurance covers the plane ride.) “It’s a crazy time to be pregnant and have a baby, especially when you don’t live on the road system,” Dean said. “It just feels like an extra sense of disconnect.” 

With many communities lacking publicly funded roads or railways and a state ferry system facing uncertainty due to budget cuts, thousands of Alaskans rely on private airlines for everything from groceries and mail to doctor’s visits. Now, Unalaska and other roadless communities are tapping a federal program to lure airline companies and organizing groups to coordinate charter flights, while waiting to see if Ravn’s new buyers — a Los Angeles-based company — will restore critically needed transportation.

In Alaska, 82% of communities are not accessible by road. As a result, the state-funded fleet of ferries known as the Alaska Marine Highway System has been a lifeline for many coastal towns. In Unalaska, for example, the ferry visited eight to 10 times annually in recent years. But this year, due to deep budget cuts pushed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the ferry will make only four trips. That’s left residents largely dependent on private transportation — in particular, commercial flights. Until it closed, Ravn Air operated 400 flights a day to more than 115 communities across the state.

The airline’s sudden closure has caused affected seafood industry workers who need to reach Unalaska’s Dutch Harbor, the nation’s busiest fishing port, as well as residents like Dean trying to get to Anchorage’s hospital. “The community has missed doctor appointments even when we had daily scheduled service,” said Erin Reinders, Unalaska’s city manager. Now, the only non-charter option leaves just twice a week, and it’s not direct, which increases the risk of weather delays. “(That) can really make or break a whole trip.”

Officials in Unalaska submitted a request to the federal Essential Air Service program, which was designed to provide rural communities with adequate passenger service. After the U.S. airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the program was established to subsidize companies serving remote towns that were otherwise unprofitable. This is particularly important in Alaska: About a third of the 168 communities receiving these flights are located here. “In most places, you can get in your car and in a couple hours get to a substantial airport, but in Alaska, not so much,” said Richard Sewell, an aviation policy planner with the Alaska Department of Transportation. As of April 2020, private airlines in Alaska will receive more than $26 million in subsidies.

The program would bring six flights a week to Unalaska during its busiest season. By the beginning of August, two companies had submitted proposals, which will be subject to public comment before a contract is awarded.

Some airlines plan to boost their operations and serve Unalaska and the Aleutians even without Essential Air Service contracts. One, FLOAT Shuttle, was awarded Ravn Air’s core assets in bankruptcy court in July and is rebranding itself the “New Ravn.” The company previously operated in Southern California, flying commuters above hectic traffic, but it has now moved some of its executive team north, where many already have aviation experience. “We saw this as an opportunity to continue a service that is needed and wanted,” said Rob McKinney, FLOAT’s co-founder. At least one other company, a Southeast Alaska airline, Alaska Seaplanes, thinks it can do a better job, calling FLOAT Shuttle “woefully unproven” in a late July press release announcing that it also intends to bring air service to Unalaska.

But the future of flight in Unalaska may not be private at all. Mark Horne, a resident of Unalaska for the last 30 years, launched a travel co-op membership drive in July. The plan would guarantee reasonably priced charter flights using an online booking system: Members would pay for their portion of the contracted charter, and if the plane doesn’t reach the destination, the passengers pay nothing. The co-op, however, is a work in progress: It has nearly 500 members now, but Horne estimates he needs 10 times that number to get it off the ground. Still, Horne hopes something happens to make booking a plane ticket a little easier. “Travel has always been a pain out here,” Horne said. “(We’ve) got to do something better.”

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