The hovercraft that will link the village of Akutan with its new airport made the trip down from Cold Bay last week. The hovercraft has a long and storied history operating in the Aleutians, but it’s the only connection between the new runway and the community of 1,000 people.
The Aleutians East Borough acquired the Suna X in 2007, to provide a transportation link between King Cove and the all-weather airport in Cold Bay. The hovercraft operated on and off for a little over two years, until 2010, when the Borough permanently suspended its operations. They cited high costs, mechanical problems and unreliability. It’s been sitting in King Cove ever since. But now, the Borough is giving it a second chance, in Akutan.
“They’re not going to build a bridge, and there’s really no way to get a conventional vessel to serve the route back and forth. Hovercraft were deemed to be the only option years ago, when the studies were done and we’re there to provide that service.”
Marty Robbins is the general manager of Hoverlink, the Seattle company that will be operating the hovercraft. He says the vessel just had a $1.4 million overhaul and that’s it ready to go when the airport opens.
“We’ll coordinate with the airlines on scheduled trips and any charters that are arranged and we’ll be there, weather permitting, for any flight that arrives or departs.”
Weather permitting. Robbins says the hovercraft can operate in up to six foot seas and 40 knot winds. Based on analysis of historical data, Robbins calculates that means it should be able to operate 90 percent of the time.
“Time will tell, but we know that a hovercraft has a better chance on that particular body of water than most other conventional vessels and boats.”
The service won’t come cheap though. Robbins estimates operational costs at $200,000 a month or $2.4 million a year. For a borough with a budget of $6 million, that’s a lot of money. And borough administrator Rick Gifford says the details of how it’s going to be paid for are still being worked out. He’s discussing a fee schedule with Trident Seafoods, the community’s largest employer, but he wouldn’t talk about it because it hasn’t been finalized. However, if it’s is similar to what was in place on the King Cove – Cold Bay route, annual ticket sales will total less than $200,000 – or a single month’s operating costs. But Gifford is confident it will all work out.
It has to work. Because otherwise there will be a $77 million airport that no one can access. Marty Robbins, from Hoverlink:
“It’s going to be shame on a lot of people if the amount of money that’s been invested out there is deemed wasteful at some point. That’s we have to avoid. We have to make it work and be a success.”
The airport will have a “soft opening” on September 1, to test how everything works. An official opening date hasn’t been announced.