For more than a year, getting in and out of Akutan has meant taking a hovercraft. The vessel ferries passengers to and from the island’s airport. But high costs and inconsistent service have sent the Aleutians East Borough looking for a better solution. Now, they think they’ve found one.
Akutan’s airport isn’t on Akutan. It sits on neighboring Akun island, across about six miles of choppy straits.
Last year, the Aleutians East borough started using a hovercraft to get people to and from the airport. But borough manager Rick Gifford says the vessel’s expenses have gotten out of hand.
Gifford: “Most of the crew is brought up from Seattle. It’s four or five people at a time that have to be on the hovercraft. It was costing the borough over $3 million a year, and it’s just not sustainable.”
He’s hoping to cut those costs by replacing the hovercraft with a helicopter. The borough is going to lease the aircraft from a company in Homer.
Gifford: “It looks like could save upwards of a million dollars and maybe more depending on how it goes.”
Marty Robbins is the general manager of HoverLink, the Seattle company that’s managed the hovercraft for the borough. He says the partnership is ending on good terms, and he’s happy with the service they’ve provided.
Robbins says the hovercraft has been able to operate about 70 percent of the time since it started running.
Robbins: “And that’s, you know, about what we thought it would be going into it, was we would have that sort of weather and sea condition limitations.”
Gifford says the helicopter will definitely have days where bad weather keeps it grounded, too. But he’s hoping those will coincide with closures and groundings at the airport.
That hasn’t been the case with the hovercraft.
Gifford: “There were days when the airplane could come over and the hovercraft couldn’t operate because of sea conditions. And there were days when it was foggy and the hovercraft could run and the airplane couldn’t run. But with the helicopter, it’ll be more consistent with what the airplane can do.”
The helicopter only holds six passengers, as compared to 40 on the hovercraft. Gifford says they’ll make up the difference in speed. It takes the helicopter six minutes to get to Akun, while the hovercraft took 30 or 40 minutes.
The helicopter does have weight limitations, and it won’t be able to haul fuel or vehicles like the hovercraft could. Akutan’s mayor Joe Bereskin says they’re still deciding what to do about that.
But Gifford says the rest of the service should stay the same. That includes the fees that passengers will have to pay to get to the airport. A one-way ticket will still be $100.
Gifford says even the helicopter isn’t a permanent solution. Eventually, they’d like to return to the water to connect Akutan to its airport.
Gifford: “We feel the ultimate solution is that someday we need to have a dock and a breakwater on the Akun Island where the airport is, and then run a conventional vessel back and forth.”
That could take three to five years to set up — to say nothing of funding. Meanwhile, the helicopter is due to start flying alongside the hovercraft in February.
They’ll overlap service for about two weeks before the hovercraft goes into storage, and the helicopter becomes a full-time airport taxi.