With Arctic Growth Looming, Airlines Put Off Planning

Executives at Alaska Airlines and Peninsula Airways admit that their service to Unalaska isn’t perfect. Lopsided demand for flights and rough Aleutian weather already make it tough for them to serve the community.

But huge demand from Arctic oil employees might make it even tougher. As KUCB’s Lauren Rosenthal reports in a follow up to yesterday’s story, Unalaska faces an uphill battle to get better air service before growth picks up in the Arctic.

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No one was happier to see Shell in Unalaska last summer than mayor Shirley Marquardt.

Marquardt: “I said, ‘Well, you can fill up anything you want! Business is great!”

And they did, booking plenty of hotel rooms and car rentals. But there was one service that Shell didn’t snap up: PenAir’s passenger flights. Instead, Shell mostly opted to charter planes.

Marquardt: “They said, ‘Look, we’ve gotta bring people in too, but we don’t want to shut down what’s going on in Unalaska. So we’re going to charter as much as possible.’”

While that might have worked for Shell this past year, there are only so many charters in the market.

Marquardt: “If ConocoPhillips and Statoil, in the next year or two, are right on their heels? It’s going to get real interesting.”

That’s why Marquardt wants to see some strategic planning — from Alaska Airlines and PenAir — so they can meet that demand, and the needs of the community.

PenAir is working on planning for the future, according to their CEO, Danny Seybert. Those plans just don’t have a lot to do with Unalaska.

The airline recently standardized its fleet, moving entirely to Saab 340 planes — a plane that Seybert says was only designed to go about 300 miles, start to finish.

Seybert: “Any time you exceed that 300 miles, then you’re trading performance and payload for fuel.”

A 300-mile range is perfect for flying on the East Coast, where PenAir secured almost $15 million in federal Essential Air Service contracts last year. But it’s not great for flying to Unalaska, which is 800 miles from Anchorage.

Seybert says they’re not giving up the Unalaska route — but he also doesn’t have plans to find an aircraft that’s better-suited to it. As far as he’s concerned, there is no better plane:

Seybert: “All we can do is say, we have looked at them, we do look at them, and right now, we still just evaluate everything.”

PenAir’s partner, Alaska Airlines, has also been doing some evaluations. They’ve decided to start flying smaller planes to some communities in Alaska, rather than using jets year round.

The Bombardier Q400 seats just 76 people — many fewer than a jet, but still three times as many as fit on one of PenAir’s Saabs.

Sales director Scott Habberstad says Alaska Airlines did look at putting the Q400 in Unalaska:

Habberstad: “And the aircraft just didn’t work with the size of the runway out there. It’s just not long enough to operate in and out of there with it.”

That’s true, sort of. Unalaska’s runway — even after a recent $28 million upgrade — isn’t designed to accommodate the Q400. But it could, with special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA says they might restrict weights or require special training.

Usually, it would be up to the airline to initiate that — but the FAA says they reached out to Alaska Airlines to see if they would want to create a plan for using the Q400 in Unalaska. The airline declined. They can still change their minds, but the FAA says their standards are going to stay the same — and they acknowledge that the special rules they make can be expensive.

So, PenAir isn’t buying more planes anytime soon, and Alaska Airlines doesn’t want to use the ones it has. Where does that leave Unalaska?

PenAir CEO Danny Seybert says he’s had to adjust his expectations for the route. Now, he’s got a different set of standards for flying to the Aleutians as opposed to anywhere else.

Seybert: “I consider, if we schedule three airplanes into Unalaska and three airplanes make it in the same day, that was a successful day.”

After about 30 years in the community, mayor Shirley Marquardt says she understands that it’s hard to fly here. But she hasn’t given up on getting better service, and she’s going to lobby the airlines for it:

Marquardt: “It’s probably time for another sit-down, face-to-face with Alaska Airlines. What I would want to know is, what’s your plan? What do you see happening in this market, and how do you plan on making it work — for all of your customers and for the community?”

That might improve things down the road. But for now, passengers will keep getting caught up in all of this. And when they get stuck, they’ll try anything to get out.

Lul Wur is a seafood processor who was on the way to his daughter’s high school graduation when his flight was delayed this spring. He wanted to leave as much as anyone. But he wasn’t pestering the gate agents, or calling the airlines for help.

Wur put his faith somewhere else.

Wur: “I pray to God to lift me out.”

LR: “You pray to God to lift you out of Dutch Harbor?”

Wur: “That’s what I say, that’s what I say.”

Eventually, his prayer was answered.