Helicopter Service To Diomede Halted Amid Contract Snag

Diomede, seen from the west. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Diomede, seen from the west. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Transportation to one of Alaska’s most remote communities has stopped, because of a contract delay that’s tying up funds.

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Helicopter flights to Diomede were suspended this week because a complicated system of state and federal subsidies expired June 30th–before the yearly re-authorization contract was inked. Rich Sewell is a planner with the Alaska Department of Transportation, and said the dollars paying for passenger flights to and from Diomede each Monday—weather permitting—come from three different sources.

“There’s part funding by US DOT, matching dollar-for-dollar what the state of Alaska provides, and this funding just ensures that the air-carrier gets to a break-even point. And, like I said, the individuals have to pay an airfare.”

The Diomede service is contracted with Erickson Helicopters—formerly Evergreen–and is subsidized at $337,520 a year. Half of that–$188,760–is paid by federal dollars from US DoT, and the state portion comes from a grant distributed by Kawerak. Passengers pay another $200 one-way on top of that, which one Diomede resident staying in Nome until flights resume said makes the service financially do-able for her.

Before weekly helicopter flights got subsidized, Sewell said, the situation was much worse.

“Every time they sparked up that bird it was $10,000,” he explained.  “So you can imagine, it got to the point it was pretty desperate out there. Say a mother would come in to Nome to delivery [a] baby, and then the problem was how does she get home to Little Diomede?”

The island, 28 miles west of Wales, is one of three communities in Alaska served by a modified version of the Essential Air Service program set up in 1978, as a way of ensuring rural residents wouldn’t be completely abandoned by commercial fliers. In Alaska, the program serves a total of 45 communities and will cost about $14,729,690 this year.

Sewell says there’s a reason why that doesn’t just amount to a giveaway to regional carriers.

“Air carriers must be profitable, of course, to be in business,” he responded.  “I mentioned 82% of our communities in Alaska are off the road system—there’s no other access, there’s no other practical access. So it’s not some kind of feather-bedding program. I think that it’s an essential—well, Essential Air Service.”

Diomede’s contract has to be renewed every year. Last year, flights were halted for weeks while documents were being signed. According to Heather Handyside, spokesperson for Senator Mark Begich–who has pushed for many of the aviation programs serving Bush communities–the holdup this time around was on the Federal side.

“Well the funding structure looks sound and reliable, and they completed their negotiations and a contract will be signed to make sure that the transportation will continue as normal service to Little Diomede,” said Handyside.

As of today, US DOT has issued an Order finalizing details with Erickson. Pearl Mikulski is in charge of Kawerak’s role in negotiations, and says the paperwork is on course to be settled in the next few days. And according to a pilot with Erickson, if that’s true, they could start bringing back-logged passengers to and from Diomede by the end of the week.