It will be at least another month before Akutan’s new airport gets scheduled service and probably longer. The latest round of bids on the federally-subsidized flight route turned up one proposal, but it’s unlikely that the government will accept it.
Grant Aviation is asking for an $800,000 annual subsidy to provide 12 round-trip flights per week from Unalaska to the new airport on Akun Island. That’s slightly more than what PenAir is being paid to fly its World War II-era Grumman Goose seaplane to the community and it doesn’t include transporting mail, freight or passengers from Akun to the village of Akutan.
“We really feel like our involvement ends at the airport,” says Grant’s Chief Operations Officer Austin Engebretson.
He says his company doesn’t want to be responsible for coordinating with the hovercraft that runs between the two islands – particularly when it comes to mail.
“We don’t have any control over that leg of it. It’s surface transportation as opposed to air transportation. And you know what? We’re not going to be responsible for that.”
The Postal Service doesn’t see it that way. Bob Lochmann is the transportation and networks manager for the Alaska district. He says everywhere else in Alaska, it’s the air carrier’s responsibility to make sure the mail get from the airport to the post office.
“The Ketchikan airport is located across the water from the city and the air carrier picks up the mail on the airport side using either their employees or an agent for them. Pick it up and they load it into a vehicle and the vehicle then goes on a ferry that operates between the airport and the city of Ketchikan.”
Lochmann says the airline gets to include those transportation costs in its Essential Air Service bid and the federal government picks up the tab. But for Grant, it’s not about the money.
“We would be responsible for their performance, or lack thereof,” says Engebretson. “Basically, right now, if we have an agent and they don’t perform to the standards, if they leave the mail out on the ramp unattended, we just fire them and get somebody new. We can’t fire the hovercraft. They’re the only ones there, there’s no other option.”
And that’s the long-term problem. Essential Air Service contracts are awarded every two years, but in communities like Akutan, where very few airlines want to operate, the contracts can, in practice, be much longer commitments. Grant doesn’t want to get stuck with a contract to deliver mail to Akutan if, for example, the hovercraft goes out of business.
But the Postal Service isn’t willing to budge on its requirement that air carriers deliver the mail to the post office, so it might be back to the drawing board after November 8, when public comment is due on the proposed contract.