20 minutes with Era Alaska's aviation wizard

Scott McMurren
A Dash-8, the largest aircraft in Era Alaska's fleet. Scott McMurren

Anchorage travelers may notice a small change in some of the Dash-8 commuter planes that fly between Anchorage and Homer, Valdez and Kodiak. The three-letter Era logo is being replaced by a stylized bird on the tail and the words "Era Alaska" on the nose. And even though Era is a big player to these smaller markets, Anchorage represents just a small portion of the company’s vast network across western and northern Alaska.

Over the last couple of years, Era has gained much national notice due to "Flying Wild Alaska," the TV show that tells the story of Era co-owner Jim Tweto and his family in Unalakleet: 

In Fairbanks, Era Alaska chief executive Bob Hajdukovich offered some perspective on where his company came from and air travel's vital role in Bush Alaska:

Era Alaska is more than one airline, right?

Era Alaska is essentially a holding company. There are three airlines that fly under the Era Alaska brand: Frontier Flying Service, Hageland Aviation and Era Aviation. The individual airlines benefit from a central reservations office, marketing and accounting. 

Before Era Alaska started, you worked for Frontier Flying Service in Fairbanks, right?

Yes. My dad, John Hajdukovich, purchased Frontier Flying Service in 1974. Our company flew mostly Beechcraft 1900s between "hub" cities, connecting with Hageland's smaller planes for travel to smaller villages. In 2008, Frontier and Hageland joined forces -- and in 2009 we added Era Aviation to form Era Alaska.

Here in Anchorage, you fly two types of planes, the Beechcraft 1900 and the Dash-8. What other planes do you fly?

We have 75 aircraft right now, including 20 Cessna 207s, 20 Caravans (Cessna 208s), 15 Beechcraft 1900 C series (19 passengers), three B1900 D series, seven 37-passenger Dash-8s, one Sherpa, four Cessna 406s and six Piper Chieftains. 

How many communities are on your route system?

We serve more than 100 Alaska communities on a daily basis. Last year, we carried about 660,000 travelers. 

What percentage of your travelers fly on government business (state, local or federal)?

Government travel accounts for about 50 percent of our business. Actually, if you include the mail, that bumps it up to about 60 percent. In fact, Medicaid travel can be more than 50 percent of the travel picture in some communities. Between Togiak and Dillingham, for example, Medicaid travel alone accounts for about 52 percent of the travel. Typically, though, Medicaid alone can account for about 30 percent of all travel. Because of that, many travelers plan around their medical appointments. That said, the Medicaid regulations are strict and do not always accommodate extended stays. 

What can you tell about the relative health of industries such as fishing, mining and tourism from the volume of travel?

Alaska's industries are healthy. We're seeing more activity, for example, at the Donlin Creek gold mine in and around Aniak -- and up at Point Thompson on the North Slope. But the oil industry, I guess, is on the precipice: it's getting ready either to take off or fall off the cliff. 

How many employees do you have?

Right now we have about 915 employees.

Aviation safety is a big consideration in Alaska. What are the key elements for safe flying in the Last Frontier?

There are several programs in place to foster a "culture of safety" -- not just at Era Alaska but with all operators in the state. That includes the "Capstone" technology with a glass cockpit. The addition of a computer screen in the cockpit increases a pilot's situational awareness. The Medallion Foundation also fosters a Circle of Safety program, which helps to move our industry from a production-based metric to one that's risk-based.

Anchorage is one of Era Alaska's hubs, with flights to Valdez, Homer, Kodiak, Fairbanks, Bethel and other destinations. What are some of your other hubs?

Well, Era Alaska is the largest leaseholder of airport properties in the state -- with 13 hangars. But our main hubs include Anchorage, Fairbanks, Bethel, Galena, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow, Deadhorse, St. Marys, Unalakleet and Aniak. 

Do you have plans to upgrade your fleet beyond the Dash-8 and the B1900?

Well, our magic number is 50. If our aircraft carry more than 50 passengers, then we have to include a full-blown TSA security program -- which we aren't going to do. So, any next-generation aircraft probably would come from Bombardier, the manufacturers of the Dash-8.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.