When Ravn stopped flying, these airlines stepped in

In Anchorage, passengers board a RavnAir Group flight bound for Unalaska. (Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

When RavnAir suddenly discontinued service to rural communities across the state, it left workers without jobs and villages without passenger or mail service. Already, other regional airlines are stepping in to close the gaps Ravn left behind. Three airlines are expanding their routes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and some are even hiring.

Grant Aviation General Manager Dan Knesek said that he spent the day of the announcement in back-to-back conference calls with the U.S. Postal Service, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, and other air carriers.

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“We’re going to do everything we can,” he said, “to fill any gaps to make sure emergency needs are taken care of.”

That includes adding passenger service to communities left with no way to fly after Ravn dropped them. Grant is adding routes to St. Mary’s and Mountain Village on the lower Yukon River. Ravn is still serving St. Mary’s from Anchorage, but Grant will now connect St. Mary’s to Bethel. Grant is also replacing Ravn’s route to the Nunivak Island community of Mekoryuk. Knesek says that Grant will absorb as much of Ravn’s freight and mail deliveries as it can, but their capacity is limited by the size of their fleet.

“Before, we had half the mail and half the passengers,” he said. “That’s switched to where we now have most of the mail and most of the passengers. Our infrastructure wasn’t built for that.”

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That infrastructure is expanding though. Knesek says he’s working with the Federal Aviation Administration to add to Grant’s fleet. That expansion was planned to meet growing demand even before the coronavirus pandemic, and Ravn’s departure has expedited the process. Knesek says that it takes a month to add a Cessna 208 under normal circumstances, and he has no idea how long it will take during this pandemic. With Grant growing, it’s looking for workers.

“One of my first calls Thursday [April 2, the day of Ravn’s reduction] was to my station manager saying for him to open his arms to the Ravn Connect workers who lost their jobs,” Knesek said.

Knesek says that Grant needs rampers to load and unload its substantial increase in cargo, and recommends people in Bethel apply in person at the Grant terminal.

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“We’re constantly cleaning it, and it’s faster than online,” he said.

For now, Grant is financially sound. It hasn’t made any layoffs, and the increase in mail and freight deliveries will help deter costs while passenger numbers remain low.

“The mail can’t cover all the operational costs, but it will help,” Knesek said. “We definitely want and need the passengers back, but we don’t want them now until the virus passes.”

Yute Commuter Service is another regional airline serving the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. It is also taking on mail and freight from Ravn, and adding passenger air service to a community Ravn dropped. Station Manager Andrew Flagg says that Yute will begin serving Marshall, on the lower Yukon River, once all the required paperwork is signed.

On the upper Kuskokwim River, Ravn’s departure left the community of Stony River without mail or freight delivery, but another carrier is stepping in there. Ryan Air President Lee Ryan says that his company will begin providing service on April 6, and deliver three times per week. Ryan Air is adding Stony River to its Upper Kuskokwim route servicing Chuathbaulk, Crooked Creek, Red Devil, and Sleetmute on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Ryan Air is also absorbing portions of Ravn’s freight and mail throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

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Ryan Air is also expanding to offer passenger service to North Slope communities left without a carrier when Ravn pulled out.

Ryan says his company has job openings and asks people to apply online. On March 23, Ryanair gave front line workers an 8% pay raise.

“I guess other people would consider it hazard pay. I consider it, ‘you guys are awesome, thank you for feeding your community’ pay,” Ryan said.