Regional air carriers forced to make cuts, but hoping for federal relief

(Photo courtesy of Ravn Alaska)

In the face of community travel restrictions and a drop in demand, some regional air carriers in Alaska say they’re being forced to cut service to communities – and to cut positions from their payroll.

Ravn Air, Alaska’s largest regional carrier which services more than 100 communities around the state, recently announced that it would temporarily cut 146 positions out of about 1,300 which it says is “due to a dramatic reduction in passenger bookings resulting from the recent arrival of the COVID-19 coronavirus,” according to a statement.  

The company isn’t providing any more information at this time, but company spokesperson Debbie Reinwand says that Ravn is hoping to rehire those employees as soon as possible. In the meantime, it is offering some special fares to essential personnel and residents returning to their home communities.

Read the latest coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. 

The cuts follow a strongly-worded March 20 appeal by Governor Mike Dunleavy for Alaskans to stop non-essential travel, such as tourism. 

Tourism cancellations have hurt some smaller carriers for whom springtime is an important money-maker. 

“All tour charters have been canceled, so this time of year is typically fairly robust because now is peak season for Aurora viewing and particularly among international travelers, so those have gone away,” said Matt Atkinson, safety director for Warbelow’s. 

But for Warbelow’s, much of their business continues to be essential: getting telecommunications workers to villages to fix technical issues, delivering fuel and mail, or providing medical evacuations. And most villages in Warbelow’s service area haven’t yet instituted major restrictions, giving him hope that the company won’t be forced to make layoffs. 

“If flights are consolidated, meaning say if it went from five days a week to three days a week, then there would be less work but still we would want to keep the team in place,” said Atkinson. 

In the Northwest Alaska, where more travel restrictions have already come, regional carrier Bering Air announced a “significantly reduced” travel schedule on Monday. The company advised passengers to double check their departure time if they are scheduled to fly.

Starting on Wednesday, Bering Air says that only essential personnel and residents returning home will be allowed to travel to and from villages. That comes after the Northwest Arctic Borough issued an emergency order telling residents to stay at home “as much as possible” and only leave for essential tasks. 

In the meantime, regional carriers are in a rush to ensure that they get some relief in the federal stimulus package that is currently being debated in Washington. Atkinson says that through his work on the board of Alaska Air Carriers Association, he’s been in contact with Alaska’s congressional delegation to push for $50 billion in funding for air carriers. 

“Our delegation is doing a nice job to make sure that we don’t forget about the 135 the regional carriers, which up here is where much of the action is, and not just focus on the 121s,” he said. 

Congress is currently in talks about whether the $50 billion should be in loans or in direct employer grants, something the national Regional Airlines Association is advocating for. In a statement from its president, the organization writes that “only direct employer grants will be enough to keep our workforce employed.” 

The association is also asking for support to keep the federal Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes flight service to about 60 Alaska communities. In a letter to House and Senate leadership, the president of the Regional Airlines Association wrote that Congress should “protect the most vulnerable communities by backstopping the Essential Air Service program.”

As of Tuesday evening, Congress was working on finalizing the $2 trillion stimulus package.