Ex-Senator, Troubled Airline Promise Unalaskans Improved Service

Former Senator Mark Begich, his former Senate staffer Schawna Thoma and Grant Aviation president Bob Lowrance in Unalaska. (Photo by John Ryan, KUCB - Unalaska)
Former Senator Mark Begich, his former Senate staffer Schawna Thoma and Grant Aviation president Bob Lowrance in Unalaska. (Photo by John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska)

Unalaska got a visit from a former senator on Wednesday.

Former U.S. Senator Mark Begich came to town to do some public relations work for Grant Aviation.

Begich now runs a five-person P.R. and consulting firm called Northern Compass Group.

The airline hosted what it called a town hall meeting on how to improve its service in the Aleutians.

“You cannot determine the long-term plan of Grant Aviation without knowing what the communities need and want and then prioritizing what’s real and possible,” Begich said.

Begich and Grant Aviation president Bob Lowrance are traveling to all the communities Grant flies to, including eight hubs like Dutch Harbor and more than 50 villages.

“We’re going everywhere,” Begich said.

A possible side benefit of the tour for Begich is face time with lots of Alaskan voters.

In an interview with Politico in May, Begich said he absolutely misses his old job as senator, and he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a run against Senator Lisa Murkowski next year.

Begich told Politico, “you never say never in politics.”

Lowrance hired Begich’s firm to help Grant Aviation win back customers after a prolonged period of poor performance. Lowrance has called it a “two-year downward run.”

Grant Aviation took over rural Alaskan routes from PenAir in 2012. Lowrance said Grant didn’t have enough planes to handle the load. The result was canceled flights, canceled service, even lawsuits from airports over unpaid bills.

“PenAir was losing money, doing what we’re doing, and I don’t think anybody had sat down and thought how should it work.”

Lowrance said Grant’s safety hasn’t suffered, but many other aspects of the business have.

“Grant has always been safe. We have probably the best safety record in the state of Alaska for a carrier like ourselves. In terms of reliability, we haven’t done as good a job. We’ve had many flights canceled, many flights delayed.”

Bad weather will always delay some flights in rural Alaska. But Lowrance, president of Grant Aviation for a year and half, promised Unalaskans gathered at the Burma Road Chapel that a company overhaul will bring better service.

Grant has been investing in new planes and new software and hiring new people.

An April 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Transportationshows Grant Aviation holding contracts for $2.3 million in annual subsidies for flights out of Dutch Harbor and Dillingham under the federal Essential Air Service program. The program subsidizes airlines that fly to 163 rural communities nationwide that otherwise might not have any scheduled air service. Grant receives other subsidies from the U.S. Postal Service.

Despite the subsidies, Lowrance said Grant is not making any money, and he said passengers can’t afford any fare increases.

Lowrance said Grant plans to operate more efficiently, allowing fares to come down.

At least one idea from Unalaska residents at the meeting garnered a promise of change.

Ron Kell asked for a passenger bill of rights when the company doesn’t perform as promised in its new overhaul procedures.

“Are you going to post a customer bill of rights, like some of the other places have, so that if your station manager forgets to open the book, the customer can see it?” Kell asked.

“I haven’t thought of it that way. That’s a great idea,” Lowrance replied. “We will put that on the list and we will do that.”

But anyone hoping for cheaper service from Dutch Harbor to Anchorage shouldn’t hold their breath. Lowrance said the planes Grant Aviation operates just can’t compete on such long-haul trips.