After nearly 20 months of watching the mail come and go via helicopter, but not being able to do so themselves, villagers on the island of Little Diomede are once again able to purchase $320 one-way seats on the weekly fights.
Evergreen Helicopters discontinued the service in July 2009 when its workhorse of the operation -- a twin-engine helicopter -- was garaged for repairs. The smaller, single-engine helicopter deployed as a fill-in couldn't handle passengers, according to the company, which cited safety standards.
It was a set-back for the islanders who have no way on or off the island except by planes or boats. The rough seas and gusty winds of the Bering Strait, where Little Diomede is located, make boat rides unreliable. On occasion, they have also been deadly. Since the island has no runway, the only time airplanes show up is during winter -- and only then if the sea ice freezes enough for a plow to clear a landing strip. What the island does have is the only helicopter pad among Alaska's 253 FAA-approved rural landing sites. The other 252 communities have runways.
While the newly resumed helicopter flights are viewed as a positive step forward, the issue of providing reliable transportation to one of Alaska's most isolated communities puts a new spin on the current debate in Congress over whether the federal government should help offset the cost of making sure air carriers continue to service small town America.
Currently, $200 million in subsidies are offered nationwide through a program called Essential Air Service. Those subsidies have recently come under fire by U.S. Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona.
Of the 183 communities in Alaska that qualify for the EAS program only 44 benefit from it -- at an annual cost of nearly $12.5 million. But Little Diomede, closer to Russia than Alaska and home to about 117 people, isn't one of them.
"They fell through the cracks and it is a very difficult situation," said Rich Sewell, an aviation policy planner for Alaska's Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
One problem for Little Diomede is that it never made it on to the original list of qualifying communities. Communities that had regularly scheduled flights before Oct. 23, 1978, when the airline industry was deregulated, made the cut. Those that didn't, didn't. Although flights did come and go from Little Diomede, it didn't have a year-round landing spot -- it had no permanent runway and the helipad wasn't built until 1996 -- there are no records to prove that flight schedules to the island were established or routine.
Another problem is the budget-tightening mood the nation has recently embraced. There are also fears that if an exception is made to include one community, others will come knocking to get their fair share, too. There are also concerns that if an exception is made to include one community, others will come knocking to get their fair share, too.
Then there's the matter of which communities apply for and are approved for the money, and which ones get turned down.
Tricky funding for Little Diomede travel
One of Little Diomede's closest neighbors, the village of Wales, is also remote and home to about 148 people. It's one of Alaska's 183 pre-qualifying communities but was denied an air service subsidy because air carriers were already making routine flights there without it, according to Sewell.
Yet a community like Cordova -- much further south and that also has routine air service accessible to the some 2,100 people who live there -- is getting about $2.7 million each year from the Essential Air Service program. And then there's Adak, a small island community at the tip of Alaska's Aleutian chain, which is getting nearly $1.5 million dollars from the program. The size of the plane and the number of passenger seats the program is underwriting will cause the rates to vary, Sewell said, noting that the flights to Cordova and Adak are on jets that can accommodate more than 70 passengers each.
Still, there is a way for communities like Little Diomede to access funding from the Essential Air Services program even if it's not on "the list," Sewell said. A rarely used option in the law allows communities to tap federal financial help if they can provide a 50 percent match for the amount of money they request.
The Essential Air Service program and Evergreen Helicopters, prompted by the state of Alaska and Little Diomede, had even gone so far as to draft an agreement to provide service to Little Diomede under the matching program, but entities in the region weren't able to raise enough money to see it through, Sewell added.
Some in Congress may believe air services to small communities can reasonably be done away with, but Sewell suspects those that do may not fully comprehend how unlike the rest of the nation Alaska really is.
"Eighty-two percent of our communities are not on the road system. Their primary means of access is air service, where compared to the Lower 48, you can't swing a dead cat without finding a road. The suggestion of getting rid of essential air service would hit Alaska unusually hard," Sewell said.
In addition to increased inconvenience, limited flight options also directly relate to increased costs for basic services, like healthcare and education. In Little Diomede, the regional school district ended up paying between $60,000 and $70,000 last winter on charter flights to get staff to and from the island's school, Sewell said.
That year, the mail flights were unavailable to passengers and the fixed wing aircraft couldn't make trips because the ice runway didn't form properly. In total for the year, the district spent about $145,000 just to fly out to Little Diomede, he said.
"They were choking on the price but that's the way it was," Sewell said, who added that helicopter charters, which only seat four or five people, can run about $3,200 an hour.
By 2010, when the island's travel conundrum had again left villagers feeling stranded, Evergreen Helicopter and the EAS, under the little-used matching program, had agreed to run weekly helicopter flights year-round to and from the island for $372,000. Under the program, if state or regional entities can come up with half of that money -- $186,000 -- the Essential Air Service will cover the rest of the costs. Even with the subsidy, passengers would be required to pay their way, which currently runs more than $600 per seat round trip.
But the deal can only go through if EAS remains an available option in the months ahead.
"EAS may be voted out of existence," Sewell said of the push in Congress to eliminate the subsidies. "That might be a deal killer."
With the re-instituted passenger service compliments of the mail flights, the island has "dodged the bullet for the short term," Sewell said. But the transportation situation still needs work.
No longer stranded on the island, villagers who make it out may instead find themselves stranded on the mainland. Piled high with mail on the flight in, there is generally only space for one passenger from Nome to Little Diomede, Sewell said. On the return, once the load is delivered, there may be enough space for as many as five people to get off of the island for the flight back.
"They really don't have any kind of adequate air service. One seat once a week, by anybody's estimation, is really not adequate," he said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com