Friday was a day of speeches, fanfare and cockpit tours at the Dutch Harbor Airport. Peninsula Aiways – or PenAir – flew in its new Saab 2000 plane for a tarmac meet-and-greet with the community. At last a bigger, faster plane will be running daily flights to the island halfway through the Aleutian chain.
For years now, residents, workers and visitors to the island have been keeping an eye to the sky for the new plane. For the current plane flying the 1180-mile milk run between ANC to DUT, it takes three and a half hours and attendants pass out packets of ear plugs to boarding passengers, it’s that noisy in the cabin.
In January of 2015, PenAir officials announced they were actively negotiating leases on three new Saab 2000s, and the airline envisioned the larger planes going into service last fall. But the negotiations took longer than expected, and then there were holdups with certification.
“There was a challenge getting resources from the federal government,” said Matt Macri, PenAir’s Director of Flight Operations. “So we’ve been working with the FAA, they really became a strong partner with it, but it did put in about two to three month delay just to find the appropriate resources.”
Standing in front of the plane on the tarmac, Macri said there were other factors in the delays.
“The training for the Saab 2000 is completely different from the Saab 340,” said Macri. “So all the pilots have had to go back down to the simulator, which is located in Orlando, Florida, and go through a completely different course from start to finish. So they’ve received what’s known as a type rating for the new aircraft.”
Last week PenAir announced the FAA finally signed off on the Saab 2000.
While the planes are new to PenAir and Alaska, the airline got them second-hand; the planes were formally used as corporate jets.
Unalaska residents turned out for the party featuring a free lunch buffet. There was a festive atmosphere at the airport and parents ushered their kids up the airstairs to get a good look at the plane. City council member Yudelka Leclere was among those who crowded into the cabin and cockpit.
“I can’t wait,” Leclere said. “Honestly, I can’t wait. And I feel the same way as the community…when can we board?”
Ricardo Solis has called Unalaska home since 1991. He works for Alyeska Seafoods, managing the fish meal and collagen plants. He was waiting to fly out on the old plane – the Saab 340 – on his way to visit family in Mexico.
“I came when they were already giving the speech and giving all the information and details about the plane…and the only thing I heard was that it goes about 100 miles faster than the other one, so that makes it easier,” said Solis.
PenAir pilot Lloyd Seybert was in the cockpit, showing folks the various instrument panels and talking about what a difference it will make for flights from now on. The Saab 2000 will make the flight in about two hours and 45 minutes.
“I’ve been doing this route for years and years,” said Seybert. “We won’t be doing fuel stops in between Dutch and Anchorage, we’re going to be doing non-stop; we’re going to be above the weather…most of the time. And it’s just going to be a lot faster airplane, a shorter time to Anchorage.”
Allan Hanson works as a facility maintenance electrician for Trident Seafoods on Akutan. Like Solis, he checked out the 2000 while waiting for another flight.
“That’s the future right there, that’s my future,” said Hanson. His commute is long enough already, he said.
“Coming from Seattle, it’s a three hour flight, so the last thing you want it another three hour flight so shave another hour off – (snaps) – very nice. Huge,” Hanson said.
Besides shorter flight time and the ability to carry more people, bags and fuel, Macri says there is another advantage to the 2000.
“One of the benefits that you won’t notice here on the ground is how quiet it is. We did a little test on our flight in here today and we were having a comfortable conversation four rows apart, without having to yell. It will be great for community and I’ll say one thing, these things in my pocket, these earplugs, well they are a thing of the past. You just won’t need them,” Macri said.
“The whole town is very happy,” Solis said. “We heard this long time ago. So we were just anxious to know when that was going to happen. But now it’s for real.”
City and PenAir officials said at the event that the Saab 2000 will be in service by the end of the month