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Will $77 million airport in remote Alaska prove inaccessible?

Ben Anderson
Aleutians East Borough photo

On a wind-battered, uninhabited island sandwiched between the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean, a $77 million airport project is taking shape. To get to or from the airport, forget about taking a shuttle bus or an underground train. At this remote outpost, helicopters and hovercrafts connect you to your flight.

Alaska is known for its largesse. Congressional representatives like Rep. Don Young and the late Sen. Ted Stevens earned a reputation for funneling cash into state coffers, often as a way to modernize small communities located off the road system, connecting them by sea or air to the rest of the world.  

The most famous -- or infamous -- of these was the so-called “bridge to nowhere,” a $398 million project that would have connected another island runway to the city it served, eliminating the need to rely on a ferry to move people on and off the island. Killed off by a hostile political climate unwilling to bankroll what was perceived as porkbarrel spending, the plans for the Southeast bridge continue to collect dust.

Years later, plans to build an airport for a smaller, even more isolated community in another part of the state demonstrate again the measures sometimes required to move Alaskans from one place to another. Though only a fraction of the cost of the “bridge to nowhere,” a new airport for the remote city of Akutan is in the works.  Already, there’s a snag.

By next winter the small village in Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain will have a new runway, long enough to handle planes carrying nearly 40 passengers. But the community won’t have easy access to the $64 million airport. The runway itself won’t be on the same island as the village, but six miles away across a windswept and turbulent strait fed in part by the notoriously rough Bering Sea.

And therein lies the problem: figuring out how residents and seasonal workers will get to the airport. A $13 million plan for a hovercraft to shuttle passengers from the airstrip to the community and back may not work, leaving local leaders in search of a solution. Now, they may need a helicopter. If they don’t find a fix by next summer, they could have a $64 million airstrip in the middle of nowhere.

Two islands, an airport, and a hovercraft

Akutan, Alaska is a small village located on the eastern end of its namesake island with a population of fewer than a hundred year-round residents. In the summer months, the population spikes to more than 1,000, as seasonal employees roll in to work and live at the Trident Seafoods processing plant -- the largest such plant in North America. And by the end of 2012, Akutan hopes to boast a new 4,500-foot-long airport runway.

Well, sort of.

That runway is actually being built six miles across open sea to the east of the city of Akutan, on Akun Island, an uninhabited piece of land home only to rolling tundra and a number of wild cows.

The only way in or out of Akutan via air is by way of a seaplane base that serves the city and Trident employees shuttling to and from work during peak months. The waves and winds are too much for most planes, though. The planes that service the community generally don’t have the range to travel all the way from Anchorage, but operate from the airport in Dutch Harbor. There has been some success with De Havilland Otters and Cessna Caravans, but the only plane that sticks around is the Grumman Goose, an amphibious World War II-era aircraft -- often 70 or 80 years old now. Two of them are operated by Peninsula Airways.

Not only are those Grumman Gooses getting old, they aren’t even manufactured anymore. And according to Brian Carricaburu, vice president and director of operations for PenAir, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain them.

“The Grummans are going away,” he said, “so it’s very difficult to keep them flying.”

Hence the need for the new aiport. But between the city of Akutan, the community being serviced by the airport, and Akun Island, where the runway will eventually reside, sits the Akun Strait. So how will travelers get from their landing point at the airport to the city of Akutan or the Trident processing plant?

Enter the hovercraft.

The BHT-130, a hulking, 93-foot-long British-designed hovercraft, is the proposed method of transportation between Akun and Akutan. It could carry almost 50 passengers, and as many as four vehicles on its deck. It is capable of speeds up to 60 knots, can clear obstacles as high as six feet, and can handle waves up to 10 feet, according to the manufacturer’s specifications.

It would be built in Seattle then brought to Alaska, ostensibly before the runway construction is completed in fall of 2012. But it may never get built, and for all the years of planning, budgeting, and construction that it’s taken to get the runway to Akun, there’s still a question of how, exactly, to get from that runway to the little town six miles away.

Cold Bay already using hovercraft

If Akutan gets a hovercraft, it won’t be the only one operating in the state.

Alaska already has a hovercraft like the one proposed for use in Akutan. In fact, it’s the same model, serving to shuttle another community to an even larger airport. About 100 miles to the east of Akutan sits Cold Bay, a small arc of water that features its namesake city at the northern end and the Alaska town of King Cove at the southeast corner.

King Cove is similar to Akutan -- it features a relatively small year-round population and a large influx of as many as 500 seasonal visitors working for the Peter Pan Seafoods cannery plant there, according to the state.

In August 2007, the Aleutians East Borough -- the borough in which both Akutan and King Cove are located -- began operating a hovercraft between King Cove and the community of Cold Bay, a 25-mile trip that was supposed to help residents of the relatively isolated King Cove get to the more than 10,000-foot paved runway at Cold Bay, the fifth longest runway in the state.

In 2007, the borough seemed optimistic about the hovercraft’s future in King Cove, especially for its ability to transport people in need of medevac to the neighboring airport.

“The medical evacuations provide the community with a safe, comfortably stable and timely transport to hospital care via Cold Bay,” Paul Tobin, the hovercraft’s chief engineer, said in a 2007 press release. “Ultimately, the hovercraft allows us to saves lives.”

Four years later, the tune had changed. Another borough press release from earlier this year titled “Recent medevacs underscore need for road from King Cove to Cold Bay airport” outlines some of the problems with the hovercraft in the intervening years.

“The commercial hovercraft, owned and operated by the Aleutians East Borough, is temporarily out of service,” the release said. “The Borough winterized (and suspended operation of) the craft last fall due to its unreliability during the winter months, low ridership and huge operating expenses. The Borough hopes to resume service at some point this spring.”

According to East Aleutians Borough Administrator Sharon Boyette, that didn’t happen. As of mid-September, the hovercraft remained out of service.

“… It didn’t do as well as we were told it would perform in high winds and rough seas,” Boyette said. “In fact, the schedule for the King Cove-Cold Bay run was to run three times per week, year round. We ended up hitting that goal only about 75 percent of the time.”

Where the manufacturer says that the hovercraft can handle waves up to around 10 feet, Boyette estimated the hovercraft would be hard-pressed to operate in six-foot seas. And if the wind was blowing at more than 30 mph -- not that unusual -- the hovercraft would likely be down. That uncertainty of operation affected the number of people who wanted to take the hovercraft.

“It proved not to have the reliability,” Boyette said. “And because it wasn’t reliable, people chose not to use it.”

Boyette said that the borough had done its homework on the hovercraft. “All the diligence was there,” she said. She also said that the borough had approached the financial aspect of operating such a vehicle realistically.

“We never expected to break even on it,” Boyette said, but added: “We didn’t expect to lose that kind of money, either.”

The numbers associated with the King Cove hovercraft are bleak.

Capable of carrying 49 people, it carried an average of only 10 people round-trip between 2008 and 2010, at a one-way cost of $76 per person. There were occasions that Peter Pan used the hovercraft to transport its employees, Boyette said, but added that the Borough had a hard time convincing the U.S. Postal Service to use the hovercraft for mail, in hopes of covering some of the cost.

The result? “Between 2008, 2009 and 2010, (the hovercraft) operated at a loss of around $3 million,” Boyette said.

The hovercraft has sat unused since November 2010.

What about a road?

The result of the hovercraft’s unreliability, combined with low ridership and subsequent high operating costs was that the borough was left looking for other solutions to its transportation problem. King Cove Mayor Henry Mack wrote an editorial in the Anchorage Daily News in August, emphasizing the need for an alternate route from King Cove to the all-weather runway in Cold Bay. Mack cited three instances in the past winter when people in need of medical evacuation were unable to get it until the weather had cleared in King Cove.

The option that King Cove is fighting hardest for -- one that Mack says has been a three-decade-long debate -- is a road between the two communities. The biggest obstacle in that case is that between King Cove and Cold Bay sits the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. To obtain permission to build a road, a land exchange has been proposed, in which the federal government would cede 200 acres of the Izembek Refuge for road use. In return, almost 60,000 acres of land belonging to the state and to King Cove Corp. would be given over to the federal government.

Boyette said that David Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior, “listened to the folks in King Cove talk about that road connection and took a look at the hovercraft” when he was in Alaska in August.

According to Boyette, a section of road heading north from King Cove is already being constructed, at the terminus of which will be a new facility for the King Cove hovercraft -- one that hopefully will be less affected by weather and allow the hovercraft to run more regularly. She said that the borough hopes to get the hovercraft back online in 2012, even if it means operating at a loss.

The Akutan airport plan was coming together around the same time that the King Cove hovercraft was ordered. It was assumed, based on studies, that the hovercraft could be reliable workhorses serving the communities. With those hopes dashed, particularly since the same extreme weather that can ground planes also made the hovercraft operation questionable, the borough has realized it needs a plan B.

On track to hit $77 million 

On Nov. 6, 2009, then-Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation Leo von Scheben assured a Legislative Budget and Audit Committee that the Akutan aiport could be built for the projected budget of $77 million. Von Scheben was appearing before the committee in hopes of securing $23.7 million for the initial phase of the project.

At that meeting, Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, asked Commissioner von Scheben how confident he was that the projected budget could get the airport built. Very confident, Von Scheben replied. 

Sean Holland, project manager for the Akutan airport, said the project is on track for completion in fall 2012, and the budget hadn’t changed.

That $77 million is an all-encompassing number for the project, which includes about $13 million to build and initially operate the hovercraft. Trident Seafoods, the company that will benefit most, is supplying $1 million.

Although Holland has only a few of the specific details of the hovercraft, he spoke about the facilities being built to accommodate it.

“We’re going to have three hovercraft landing pads,” Holland said. “One on Akun, one in Akutan, and one in the area that we call the head of Akutan Bay, near the small boat harbor,” where the hovercraft will be housed when not in use.

The airport will also feature a building to house snow-removal equipment and to support a staff to maintain the runway, Holland said.

Holland wasn’t sure about the hovercraft’s operating capabilities but did say that the DOT has anticipated the possibility of passengers on an incoming flight to Akun finding themselves unable to cross to the city itself. To accommodate potentially stranded passengers, the DOT will set up a place where “29 or 30 passengers” can stay in the maintenance structure, Holland said. He also said that the DOT will leave the small “engineer’s office” structure that serves as the construction headquarters, where people can stay, but probably not sleep.

Due diligence

So the question is inevitable: Given how the King Cove hovercraft has performed, why is it being considered for the Akun-Akutan crossing?

Just as in King Cove -- where engineering and cost-feasibility studies seemed to back up the purchase and operational costs of a hovercraft -- support jelled for a hovercraft in Akutan, too.

Holland references a study by the Seattle-based Glosten Associates, which evaluated the possible methods of transport between Akun and Akutan.

The lengthy study evaluated eight possible landing sites, three potential means of transport, and the 20-year cost of each feasible passenger carrier. The report narrows the options down to the hovercraft or a more conventional ferry. It determines that the BHT-130 hovercraft could run 90 percent of the time all year to multiple landing sites.

The report was finished in 2005, two years before the King Cove hovercraft began commercial operation. It does mention that the Aleutians East Borough was in the process of acquiring the same model hovercraft for the King Cove-Cold Bay route.

But in light of the experience gained from the King Cove hovercraft and the fact that, as Sharon Boyette put it, the run from Akutan to Akun is shorter but more exposed to the elements, the Aleutians East Borough is examining other options.

“The Borough has commissioned a study to look at another option that uses the same facilities as the hovercraft,” Boyette said. That option, she said, is a helicopter. USKH is currently examining the operability and cost of a helicopter bridging the six-mile gap between the remote Akun Island and the city.

One of the benefits of using a helicopter, Boyette said, is that its weather operability would be relatively similar to an airplane’s -- and wouldn’t be affected by the height of the waves the way a hovercraft would. So if a plane can come in to land at the runway, the odds are better that the helicopter would be able to shuttle people between the two locations.

“(We are) hoping that a helicopter option might work better, because you’re dealing with aviation weather,” Boyette said. She also acknowledged that the helicopter -- if the Borough decides to go with that -- likely wouldn’t carry as many people as PenAir is flying in on a plane, necessitating multiple trips for a full flight.

Brian Carricabaru, Vice President of PenAir, said the Piper Navajo Chieftain is capable of carrying up to nine passengers and a pilot. Akutan airport project manager Sean Holland said that the runway was built with the Saab 340 -- PenAir owns several of the 30-passenger aircraft -- in mind. Either aircraft seems possible, especially as Trident flies in employees during the peak season to staff its processing plant -- but a fully-loaded Saab 340 would represent multiple trips in any commercial helicopter.

The report from USKH on the feasibility of a helicopter won’t be ready until December, Boyette said. Because the Borough is in charge of the Akun-Akutan connection part of the airport project, they have some time to figure out what will work before the runway is completed. But there is still a deadline of sorts, and it's before the scheduled completion of the runway in fall 2012.

Boyette said that the helicopter is being looked at because it would utilize the same facilities as the hovercraft. Other alternatives would require new studies and Environmental Impact Statements that would require research and review, and potentially the construction of new facilities or infrastructure.

"Any other alternative would require time," Boyette said, "and we're running out of time."

Capital construction

There’s a lot of money going into Akutan at the moment. While von Scheben said in 2009 that $77 million is a pretty reasonable number for building an airport out in the Alaska Bush, it’s not the only project taking place right now on the island.

Also under construction is a $31 million harbor funded primarily by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- more commonly known as the 2009 economic stimulus package. As of June 2011, that project was still listed as “less than 50 percent completed.”

And PenAir, which operates those Grummans in and out of the community, takes in about $700,000 annually as part of the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes regular flights to rural communities. The program is very popular in Alaska, and Akutan is among the most heavily subsidized.

Thanks to the EAS service, PenAir provides 11 Grumman flights per week to Akutan. Carricabaru said that the cost will likely drop once the new airport is built and the Grummans can be phased out. The EAS contract is scheduled to run through April 2013 and would probably have to be reconsidered before that in order to accommodate changes after the airport is finished.

In a recent speech urging Congress to pass a jobs bill, President Obama said, “No more earmarks. No more boondoggles. No more bridges to nowhere,” a reference to that famed proposed bridge between Ketchikan and the nearby Gravina Island -- population 50 -- that became a popular symbol for government waste.

With uncertainty swirling around what will connect the new runway to the community it’s supposed to serve, and how much the connection could cost, the lonely runway on a wild island in the middle of the Aleutians might find itself newly infamous.

Will it eventually be branded “The airstrip to nowhere”? 

Jill Burke contributed to this report. Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com and Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com