Alaska Air starting Bristol Bay, Unalaska service with regional help
Alaska Airlines is doing what it can to fill the void in air service to Western Alaska created when Ravn Alaska suddenly grounded its fleet earlier this spring.
The major domestic airline is partnering with regional carrier Grant Aviation to provide twice-weekly scheduled service to Unalaska through Cold Bay starting May 16, Alaska Airlines Regional Vice President Marilyn Romano said.
Regular passenger service between Anchorage and Dillingham and King Salmon — where Alaska has historically offered seasonal jet service — will also start earlier this year. The first flights to the Bristol Bay hub communities are scheduled for May 18, according to Romano.
Dillingham, King Salmon and Unalaska-Dutch Harbor are just three of the 115 communities across the state that used to be served by Ravn Alaska and its subsidiary carriers. Ravn filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection April 5, grounding its fleet of 72 aircraft, following a 90 percent drop in its passenger revenue as travel halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a company statement.
Alaska Airlines had partnerships with Ravn at hubs across the state and Romano said it is very difficult to watch the company suffer largely as a result of the health crisis.
“It’s hard to think about the 1,300 employees for Ravn that are currently out of work and I know they’re working hard still today, as far as I’ve been told, to see how they could possibly get their operation up and running,” she said in a May 12 interview.
Alaska’s moves to backfill Ravn’s service are just part of a larger effort from multiple carriers statewide, Romano noted.
“Very quickly, not just Alaska Airlines, the aviation community as a whole really stepped up from both the passenger and cargo side to quickly see how these markets could be served in some way and I think what we’ve got today is most of the markets, whether they’re a (larger) Part 121 market or a Part 135 (air taxi) market, are being covered in some form or fashion,” she said, adding that many of the smaller airports Ravn served are inaccessible to Alaska’s fleet of Boeing 737 jets.
That is the case for Unalaska, so Alaska Airlines is flying to the Alaska Peninsula community of Cold Bay, which has a 10,000-foot runway from its days as a military airfield during WWII. From there, Grant Aviation will take passengers the remaining roughly 150 miles to Unalaska.
The Cold Bay airport has periodically been used as an emergency landing site for international flights with mechanical or other issues.
The Cold Bay stop will be part of Alaska’s service to Adak farther out the Aleutian Chain, according to Romano.
She said preparing for the coordinated service to Unalaska — the largest seafood port in the country — has been “a real collaboration” between the communities, airlines and state and federal Transportation officials.
While the travel restrictions imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19 have decimated the airline industry worldwide, Romano said the period of very low passenger demand has provided a window for Alaska and other carriers to work out solutions to serve rural communities.
“It’s been relatively calm but you never want to, if you can help it, have a community with no access to travel. There are critical needs to travel,” she said.
As for Bristol Bay, Alaska first had to arrange to sublease Ravn’s ground facilities at the King Salmon and Dillingham airports before it could start service, as the airlines shared space when they both flew to the communities in years past.
“We’re ready to go,” Romano said. “We’ve got our plan for moving employees around filed with the state and the communities.”
Alaska will start fly to Dillingham three times per week and King Salmon twice per week briefly before ramping up to daily flights in June along with activity in the region’s commercial salmon fishery.
Many Bristol Bay-area residents have long pled for Alaska Airlines to provide year-round passenger service to the region and Romany said the airline currently plans to do so this year.
“They seem really happy about that in those communities,” she said.
Romano added that Alaska will be flying additional charter flights in and out of Bristol Bay to move commercial fishermen and salmon processor workers as safely as possible.
Many leaders and residents in rural fishing towns have expressed serious concerns about the ability to safely move seasonal workers in and out of their communities amid the pandemic.
“Some of those seafood workers will actually move from a quarantine situation right onto a charter flight as opposed to scheduled service. Any level of safety that any of us can do together is going to help,” she said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].