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Officials seeking cheaper replacement for Akutan hovercraft

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman

It won't be long before the hovercraft is history in Akutan, and the future just might be a helicopter. Airborne transportation to the airport across the water might rise to a higher level, in a helicopter, or maybe the cost-lowering device will be a boat.

"The hovercraft is way too expensive to operate, and has problems," said Rick Gifford, manager of the Aleutians East Borough, which owns and operates the vessel that rides above the water on a cushion of air between the new airport on Akun Island, and the village and seafood processing hub of Akutan about seven miles away.

The future is a helicopter or landing craft. The two options are actively under consideration, and a decision should be made soon based on cost, he said. The hovercraft costs $3 million a year to operate, and only brings in $500,000.

The borough hopes the replacement transport, helicopter or boat, will get the job done for $1 million a year, Gifford said. As it stands, a $2.5 million borough subsidy is was too expensive, he said.

The hovercraft is operated by Hover Link, of Seattle, with a $2.5 million annual contract, according to Hover Link general manager Marty Robbins.

The contract is based on an hourly rate of $2,500 per hour for 1,000 hours per year. Fuel cost are extra, and the hovercraft uses 80 gallons of diesel per hour. The vessel is operated by a four-member crew, including a captain, pilot, deckhand and engineer. Two crews work the vessel on three-week rotations, Robbins said last year.

While the hovercraft may stay another year, Gifford expects it will be replaced sooner.

The hovercraft is not only expensive, it is unreliable, frequently grounded by wild wind and water in the Akutan Strait. One day it runs, the next day it sits idle because of weather conditions, Gifford said. The hovercraft will probably be sold after it's replaced, he said.

The hovercraft formerly served King Cove.

The little village and big fish plant was formerly serviced by Peninsula Airways, which last year stopped flying its 1940s-vintage amphibious Grumman Goose from the airport in Dutch Harbor to the water in front of Akutan.

The new $50 million airport on Akun opened in September, now serviced by Grant Aviation flying from Dutch Harbor with federal Essential Air Service funding. Pen Air pulled out of rural Alaska village service, and sold its small planes to Grant.

Pen Air continues to fly to larger rural Alaska hub communities in commuter planes. However, in a transcontinental shift, the airline has found a very familiar funding source on the East Coast. The airline now has a passenger check-in desk in Boston's Logan Airport, for EAS-subsidized flights to remote communities in northern Maine and upstate New York.

Gifford said the state legislature recently denied a $1 million request for hovercraft operations, and other local projects including a replacement clinic building at Cold Bay.

"We didn't get any of what we asked for," he said.

While the legislature's capital budget contained $3.1 million for Akutan harbor projects, that was not state money and not new money, but rather old federal money, and only half what's needed for floats for boats to tie up at inside the new harbor, Gifford said.

On the land side of Akutan's recent and still incomplete marine and air infrastructure development projects, a road linking the new harbor to the village and Trident Seafoods moves forward on paper, under the lead of the local tribal council.

The head of the Akutan Traditional Council, Jacob Stepetin, said the next formal step, expected shortly, is right-of-way agreements for the road to cross property owned by the city, Trident, The Aleut Corp. and The Akutan Corp.

The road's plans are "95 percent" finished, and environmental studies are complete.

"We've got all our permits," Stepetin said.

So for now, all that's missing is the money, though that's expected to eventually materialize.

The 1.6 mile road's cost was estimated at $22 million, with $2 million for a bridge for a creek crossing, according to Thomas Ilanos of the Bureau of Indian Affair's road program in Anchorage, who said earlier requests for federal highway funding were not granted.

"If it was funded in 2011 or 2012, it could have been built by now," Llanos said. Once funded, construction will take about two years, he said.

This story originally appeared in the Bristol Bay Times and is republished here with permission.