Helicopter service to the remote island of Little Diomede has been halted while state and federal agencies sort out a transportation contract, temporarily leaving residents without their weekly lifeline to the Alaska mainland.
The island that sits about 2 miles east of Russia's Big Diomede, just below the Arctic Circle and in the middle of the Bering Strait, has been without its weekly passenger helicopter service since June 30, when funding expired.
Money from the U.S. Department of Transportation and Alaska Legislature subsidizes the flights to and from Little Diomede. Both agencies have approved another round of funding for fiscal year 2014, though it didn't come in time to spare service interruptions.
“It’s a long, kind of loopy, multiplayer story,” said Rich Sewell, a transportation planner with the state DOT.
By Tuesday, the funding gap had led to one canceled flight and a group of officials uncertain when the service would resume. A local pilot, Michael Kutyba, said he was awaiting the signatures on a final contract so he could relaunch the helicopter service. He was hopeful he could take off by week’s end.
“I’ve got passengers ready to go Thursday,” Kutyba said. “I’m already taking reservations.”
Kutyba works for Erickson Helicopters Inc., the company contracted to shuttle residents to and from the tiny community of about 100 islanders. State and federal agencies subsidize the company's costs up to its break-even point as part of a federal program that aims to provide affordable access to rural residents, Sewell said.
The U.S. DOT and Alaska Legislature have already signed off on splitting the helicopter service's $377,520 price tag, with the federal government finalizing details in an order issued Tuesday. The money will funnel into Kawerak Inc., a nonprofit corporation set up by Bering Straits Native Association, which in turn writes checks to Erickson.
Pearl Mikulski, community service vice president with Kawerak, was awaiting a final contract from the U.S. DOT Tuesday. She said she did not know when to expect the electronic form.
“I haven’t seen it yet, but they tell me it’s forthcoming,” she said. “I would think it would happen soon, within the week, because they realize people are waiting.”
The subsidized helicopter flights began in November 2012. Kutyba said he can take up to four passengers between each of the three stops once a week, typically Mondays.
"Generally it's always full from Diomede to Nome and Nome back to Diomede," he said. "A few move from Wales back to Diomede."
Before 2012, islanders had few options for getting off Little Diomede. They could squeeze onto mail flights, take a boat on the rough seas of the Bering Strait or, if they were in need of medical assistance, rely on the Army National Guard to swoop in and pick them up. There is a makeshift runway but it’s made of sea ice and only usable during winter.
At times, Sewell said, pregnant women would take an emergency flight to Nome to give birth only to find themselves stranded away from home until the ice thickened in Little Diomede and an airplane could land.
“For a while it was really kind of a desperate situation,” Sewell said.
Essential Air Service, a federal program that subsidizes scheduled flights in about 163 rural communities across the U.S., did not offer any reprieve. Little Diomede did not originally qualify for the program. It couldn't prove it had routine flights scheduled before 1978 and it didn't have a year-round landing spot -- its heliport wasn't built until 1996.
The island could qualify for scheduled service through a rarely used match program called Air Transportation to Noneligible Places, which allows for that joint state and federal cost-sharing. Even with the subsidy, a one-way ticket costs $200.
Once the contract goes through, Erickson will have funding to fly 44 flights before June 30, 2015. Since the company does not receive money to fly every week, year-round, Kutyba said the delay hasn't hindered operations.
"Other than missing that one flight, it really hasn't affected us," he said. "Like I said, we can't fly every week because we're only contracted for 44. There's a few flights we have to miss."
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