Uncertainty for villages and towns across Alaska as the largest rural carrier, Ravn, grounds almost all of its fleet

Ravn Alaska prepares to board a passenger flight from Dillingham and King Salmon to Anchorage. (Avery Lill/ KDLG)

Alaska’s largest rural air carrier, RavnAir Group, said Thursday that it’s cutting its service by 90 percent amid a corresponding, coronavirus-driven crash ticket sales — a move that could leave dozens of rural villages without scheduled air service for passengers and no other reliable link to the road system.

The company, until this week, served 115 communities across nearly the entire state, from the North Slope to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to the Aleutian Islands. RavnAir Group’s three companies are federally certified to operate more than 70 planes, but in a prepared statement, RavnAir Group said it will now fly just three.

“RavnAir Group today announced that due to the dramatic and continuing 90% reduction in passenger revenue bookings resulting from the COVID-19 coronavirus, it has been forced to take further actions to drastically cut costs,” the statement said.

Ravn’s announcement reverberated through rural communities across the entire state, as residents wondered about how villages would ensure their flow of people, mail, goods and medical supplies amid the pandemic.

Ravn did not respond to a question about the number of villages where it is the only operator, and federal and state officials also said they did not have that information. But cuts will deprive several North Slope villages, which are disconnected from the road system, of their only passenger flights, along with the major Aleutian fishing port of Dutch Harbor. The Anchorage Daily News also reported that 17 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, in Southwest Alaska, are also losing passenger service.

“I just thought of the community — just in case we had an accident, or if someone needs to fly out for medical purposes,” said Mona David, a tribal judge in the Bering Sea island village of Mekoryuk.

Another flight service, RyanAir, delivers cargo and mail to Mekoryuk three times per week. But without a way for passengers to fly out, David said she fears residents won’t have access to medical care beyond what their village clinic can provide.

The U.S. Postal Service only learned of Ravn’s service reductions Thursday, said spokesman David Rupert. But it’s already found alternative carriers for all but a “handful” of the more than 100 communities whose mail Ravn delivered.

“Some of the frequencies aren’t where we want to be. We might just be able to get mail a couple of times a week to some communities,” Rupert said. “But we’ll get there soon.”

Officials at another airline, Bethel-based Yute Commuter Service, said they were eager to pick up freight and mail services that Ravn dropped, given Yute’s own challenges created by the pandemic.

“We will have more flights to do, which is great, because that means we have more revenue coming in and it will help the business stay afloat,” said Nathan McCabe, the company’s general manager.

The Alaska Department of Transportation has called an “emergency meeting of aviation industry partners” in hopes of addressing “immediate needs,” spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said in an email. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a prepared statement, added that “the aviation industry is working cooperatively to ensure essential passenger service, bypass mail and freight service is maintained to their communities during these uncertain times.”

“We’re working with other airlines, we’re working with the airline industry,” he said at a subsequent news conference. “We just want Alaskans to know that we’re trying to do everything we can to try to keep life as normal as possible and deal with the economic fallout from what’s happening here with the pandemic.”

Ravn did not give any indication of when it might resume service to rural villages; its statement said simply that all its aircraft will be parked and “operations will be stopped.” The one exception is the company’s three larger Dash-8 planes, which will continue to fly to the hub towns of Kenai, Homer, Valdez, King Salmon, Dillingham, St. Paul, Bethel, Aniak, St. Mary’s, McGrath, and Unalakleet.

“These are extremely difficult decisions that are essential for our ability to weather this crisis and successfully recover in the future,” Ravn’s chief executive, Dave Pflieger, wrote in a letter to employees.

Pflieger did not respond to a request for comment sent through his personal website; neither did two officials with J.F. Lehman & Company, the private equity company that’s Ravn’s majority owner.

In his message, Pflieger said the company intends to apply Friday for money from the federal coronavirus relief package that President Donald Trump signed last week.

In the mean time, leaders from the communities served by Ravn say that their residents are anxious — although they also acknowledge that travel has been sharply reduced amid the pandemic.

“In Bush Alaska, we depend on air service like anybody would in urban Alaska jumping in their car and being able to go to point A to point B,” said House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, who represents a rural district. “It’s definitely going to have an impact. And I think it’s going to add to that unsettling feeling that most people are experiencing right now with everything that’s happening around them.”

Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove contributed to this story from Anchorage, KYUK’s Anna Rose MacArthur contributed from Bethel and KUCB’s Caroline Lester contributed from Unalaska.