Pen Air is facing criticism from residents in Bristol Bay due to continued delays along its Dillingham-Anchorage route. The company said it is still in the process of integrating their new fleet of Saab 2000s.
Pen Air Vice President of Sales and Marketing Melissa Roberts said recent mechanical delays are on account of the company integrating a new series of airplanes, the Saab 2000s.
“We brought our first on in April and our second in June,” Roberts said. “So they are just getting inundating into the system and getting climatized.”
Those Saabs are bigger and faster, but Roberts said it can take a while to get planes adjusted to the climate challenges that Alaska poses and the same problems existed 11 years ago when Pen Air brought on their Saab 340s.
“Those aircraft need to be climatized to the moisture content, the elevation, the cold, the warm, and the hot,” Roberts said.
So far in 2017, Pen Air has an 88 percent completion rate along its Dillingham to Anchorage route. By comparison the completion rate in 2015 was 97 percent and 96 percent in 2016.
“We feel this is low,” Roberts said. “We aim for 100 percent, but 96 percent is our target and we don’t like to be below 96. ”
Delays due to controllable factors, like mechanical issues, are low according to the company. The company said that 4.9 % of flights this year have been delayed due to mechanical issues. Those numbers were 4.7% in 2015 and 6.6% in 2016.
49% percent of Pen Air delays in 2017 have come from uncontrollable factors, such as weather or a problem at the airport according to their statistics. Uncontrollable factors caused delays roughly 29% and 30% of the time in 2015 and 2016.
Roberts said the turboprops were previously used by some NASCAR teams, which used the planes to ferry crew members. Pen Air is the first airline to register the 2000 aircraft for commercial flights.
Adjusting the planes from private use to commercial flights has been and still is a learning curve for the company.
“Each plane has its own personality,” Roberts said.
Another criticism often leveled at Pen Air is the high cost of flights between Dillingham and Anchorage. If bought in advance a round trip airfare from Dillingham trip airfare to Anchorage can cost $319. Shorter notice purchases can see fares increase to almost 600 dollars. For example, a round trip ticket leaving March 30 and returning April 2nd is currently selling for $564 dollars on Pen Air’s website.
Roberts believes the price offered to Dillingham customers is fair and comparing the Alaskan market to elsewhere in the United States is apples and oranges.
“Labor costs can be completely different, and so can insurance costs and fuel costs,” Roberts said. It is not the same as a destination market we offer in the lower 48 that we operate in.”
Roberts flatly denied that Pen Air overcharges Dillingham customers to service its expansion or to finance other routes.
“Absolutely not, that is the farthest thing from our mind. We went out and spent 27 million dollars in 2016 on investing new aircraft, which means the Saab 2000,” Roberts said. “All those 2000s are for the state of Alaska, not the lower 48. So all of our investment came for the state of Alaska.”
The company is aware of the criticisms coming from its Bristol Bay customers and on social media. Roberts said she understands people’s complaints but wants customers to know that it values Bristol Bay and hopes to continue working and being part of the community.