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In Unalaska, Crossed Wires Trip Up Air Travelers

By | August 12, 2013 - 5:24 pm

For the past nine years, Alaska Airlines and Peninsula Airways have partnered to provide regular passenger air service to Unalaska. That service has been plagued by delays, and has also suffered from the airlines’ failure to communicate – with passengers, and even internally, with each other.

KUCB’s Lauren Rosenthal sat down with representatives from both Alaska Airlines and Peninsula Airways, to find out why it’s so hard to fly to Unalaska.

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Late spring is supposed to be quiet in Unalaska. It’s the lull between the two busiest fishing seasons of the year — a time when the town’s processing plants go dark.

But inside Unalaska’s airport, the atmosphere is anything but calm.

Mark Edwards: “Today is Thursday? I’ve been trying to get out since Monday afternoon.”

Mark Edwards is a Seattle insurance agent. He’s one of about 40 people whose flights were turned away from Unalaska due to bad weather.

Edwards: “In all honesty, the worst isn’t missing the flights. It’s not canceled flights, it’s not the weather, it’s not any of that. It’s the complete lack of information. And then when you try to get information, to ask any question at all, they are so unbelievably rude.”

Edwards is all too happy to take the microphone and vent his frustration.

Not all of the passengers are as eager. Ask around, though, and it quickly becomes apparent that many of them are just as angry:

Passenger 1: “If you ask a question, somebody gets mad at you, basically.”Passenger 2: “It’s kind of third-world-countryish.”

Passenger 3: “They treat me like a stepchild around here! A redheaded stepchild!”

People are clearly upset at being stranded for days. So they’re doing what anyone would do — calling customer service for help. But that’s where it gets complicated.

The airplanes landing on the tarmac have PenAir’s name painted on them, but the actual tickets are issued by Alaska Airlines. According to one passenger, it doesn’t matter which airline you call for help. They can’t help you, and they both say the same thing:

Jose Silva: “They just told me to check with this person here.”

But the terminal agents working in Unalaska don’t have answers, either. Earlier in the day, they issued new plane tickets to a group of stranded seafood company employees. When the plane arrived at the gate, they weren’t allowed to board — and the agents couldn’t say why. That whole scene played out multiple times as the day wore on.

April and her friends are seafood processors. They say they couldn’t believe what they were hearing from agents.

April: “’I don’t know what’s going on.’ That’s what they say. ‘I don’t know! Ask us later! There’s a plane outside but it’s not for you!’ “

It’s clear that there’s no hard-and-fast system in place for dealing with a bottleneck like this, even though it happens a lot.

Exactly how often isn’t public information. The only statistic PenAir would share is that 94 percent of their scheduled flights to Unalaska are eventually completed. But that number doesn’t take into account delays.

Jose Silva’s seen plenty of those in the 20 years he’s been working for Westward Seafoods in Unalaska. His flight was canceled almost three days ago and he still hasn’t gotten a new itinerary.

So every day, he comes to the terminal to wait for word from the PenAir gate agents:

Silva: “We ask them what time they want us to be here. And they tell us to be here by noon. So from noon until the end of the day, maybe 9 or 10 o’clock in the evening.”

And sure enough — as night falls, a PenAir agent steps out to address the people who weren’t offered a seat on the day’s flights:

Agent: “That’s it for standbys.”

A passenger asks if PenAir will actually have space for standby passengers tomorrow. The agent:

Agent: “We won’t know that. We won’t know until — it all depends on if everybody checks in, what the weather is, how much fuel we can take, everything like that.” 

[Sound of people asking questions in the Unalaska airport fades into typing.]

Eight-hundred miles away, in PenAir’s corporate offices in Anchorage, Ron Berntsen has the answers everyone is looking for.

Ron Berntsen: “We’re problem solvers in here.”

Berntsen’s an operations controller for the airline. When the weather takes a turn in Unalaska, his job is to un-strand the dozens of people on the ground, slotting them into the schedule PenAir already has, or occasionally, adding an extra flight.

It’s pretty abstract to him — Berntsen is dealing with seats, not people. But he still says his choices aren’t clear-cut.

Berntsen: “We deal with the maintenance side of things, then the crew side, and then the revenue portion of it as well. We’ve gotta make the best decision for the company.”

In this case, Berntsen’s talking about PenAir. But in reality, another company has just a big a stake in this — Alaska Airlines. And with two airlines involved, it’s hard to figure out who’s responsible for making things better.

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