Mail Dispute Keeps Akutan Airport Idle

Akutan’s new, $77 million runway has been open for a month, but residents and their mail are still making the trip to town on PenAir’s World War II-era Grumman Goose seaplane. A dispute over transporting the mail is holding up the process of bringing scheduled service to the new airport.

Bids were due last Thursday from airlines wanting to take over the federally-subsidized flight route between Unalaska and Akutan. But when the deadline rolled around, instead of bids, the Department of Transportation posted a notice of extension. It said Grant Aviation had requested additional time to complete their proposal.

Grant’s Chief Operations Officer Austin Engebretson:

“Our bid is ready is go. It’s sitting there. But we’ve got to get the issue resolved before we [submit it].”

The issue is that new airport is on an island seven miles away from the village and is accessible only via hovercraft. Engebretson says that distinction is lost on the U.S. Postal Service and consequently, if awarded the contract, that Grant would be required to deliver mail to the village, even though their planes land on a different island.

“And that would require us to ship the mail, on the hovercraft, at our expense, to the village of Akutan. The mail rate is roughly $0.50 per pound, that’d what we get paid to haul it to the airport. The rough estimates that we’ve gotten from the hovercraft are $1.00 per pound to ship it across the bay. So for every pound of mail we would transport, we would take a fifty-cent loss. And that’s just no way to do business.”

The Postal Service didn’t respond by air time to a request for more information. The Department of Transportation, which administers the Essential Air Service program, said it couldn’t speak specifically about the issue until the bidding process is over. Spokesperson Bill Mosley did say, however, that the hovercraft costs could be included in the airline’s bid.

That’s news to Engebretson:

“Include cost of hovercraft transportation in the bid for EAS [Essential Air Service]? DOT has told us that’s not an acceptable cost.”

Regardless of how that’s resolved, there may still be issues regarding custody of the mail. And while the details of who will and will not pay for what and who can and can’t carry mail are sorted out, Akutan is facing serious cutbacks in air service.

PenAir says it can no longer offer scheduled service to Akutan because the seaplane ramp in the village was modified this summer to accommodate the hovercraft. PenAir President Scott Bloomquist says the changes have made the ramp unusable for the Goose. That means the plane has to drive up onto the small strip of rocky beach in front of the village.

“We’ve restricted the operations in Akutan to only go in and off that beach in certain tides, when we feel those rocks are less exposed.”

Bloomquist says landing at high tide reduces stress on the plane’s tail wheel, a piece of equipment that can’t be readily replaced or manufactured. He hopes the precaution will keep the plane running indefinitely, albeit on a limited and irregular schedule.

“We’ll continue hauling the mail and the passengers right into the village, if that’s what everybody wants. That seems kind of silly, since there’s a very nice runway out there and there’s an aircraft out there that’s willing and able to do it, probably more effectively than the Goose is doing it.”

The extended deadline for bids is Wednesday.