Earlier this week, Peninsula Airways stopped running the only regularly-scheduled air service to the remote Aleutian community of Akutan, temporarily stranding its residents and leaving mail undelivered. That's despite a new multimillion-dollar airport finished just last month. And while the sudden stoppage of service was a bit of a surprise, it wasn't wholly unexpected, as PenAir continues to move away from small-plane service to some of Alaska's most-isolated communities.
Mail and passenger service has reportedly resumed since, on charter flights operated by Grant Aviation.
PenAir has for decades operated the vintage Grumman Goose, a World War II-era amphibious aircraft, as the only way in or out of Akutan by air. That's been possible thanks to an Essential Air Service (EAS) contract that subsidizes the 11 regularly scheduled flights that PenAir makes each week between Dutch Harbor and Akutan, which has less than 100 full-time residents.
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When the new airport was finally finished last month, the existing seaplane ramp on Akutan utilized by the Goose to pull up onto land and offload its passengers got a facelift. It was overhauled to accommodate a massive hovercraft designed to ferry passengers between Akutan and Akun Island, the site of the new runway that is also six miles away from the community.
One problem: A lip now protrudes from the ramp, rendering it unusuable by the 70-year-old Goose. Now the Goose is landing on a rocky beach runway. The risk of damage to the old aircraft was just too great, as PenAir hopes to sell it after it has finished its service in Akutan, according to PenAir CEO Danny Seybert.
"I just don't want to damage my airplane," Seybert said. "It hasn't done any damage yet, but it's only a matter of time until we knock off the tail wheel."
Seybert said that he remembers when he was younger, his father -- who started flying the Goose to Akutan in 1977 -- returned home from several trips having damaged the tail wheel, which drags along the ground when the aircraft's landing gear is deployed.
In Seybert and PenAir's opinion, when the ramp was redone to accommodate the 90-foot SUNA-X hovercraft responsible for transporting passengers and cargo between the runway and the village, the terms of the EAS contract changed.
"It was like taking away my runway," Seybert said, "and I should've stopped flying my Goose that day, but I was trying to be nice and to help out the community."
In the meantime, Grant Aviation, the Department of Transportation and the Postal Service are trying to work out a new EAS contract to deliver passengers and mail to the new runway at Akun. Grant has expressed interest in taking over the EAS service, and submitted a proposal that could cost more than $800,000 in annual subsidy to perform 12 flights each week between Dutch Harbor and Akun.
After PenAir stopped flying to Akutan, Grant has stepped in to provide charter flights to the community as a temporary solution to the mail and passengers that may pile up waiting for transport from one community to the other. Aleutians East Borough officials said that flights were taking place to Akun, and an employee at the Akutan city office said that at least one plane had landed on Thursday. Grant Aviation was unavailable for comment Friday.
A long-term contract for regularly-scheduled service is still in limbo, though. Earlier in the week, Grant Aviation President Bruce McGlasson said that the talks were going slowly because of the fact that the airport is separate from the community, and the only way to travel between the two is by hovercraft.
Who's watching the mail?
Normally, an EAS contract would require the air service provider to ensure the delivery of mail or passengers to the actual community being served. In the case of Akutan, that's impossible because the runway is on a separate island, and the island of Akutan has no landing strip of its own.
"Typically, the air carriers deliver the mail to the airport and then to the post office," McGlasson said on Tuesday. "The islands are unusual though, because our usual method of delivery is just to load the mail onto someone's four-wheeler and have them take it to the post office."
But far out in the Aleutians, a hulking hovercraft is necessary to transport the mail to and from Akutan. And that's causing hang-ups related to cargo-transportation costs. Grant's current proposal for EAS subsidies makes no accommodation for the cost of mail transport between Akun and Akutan.
Additionally, there are chain-of-custody issues. In Grant Aviation's proposal for EAS subsidies, the company cites a statistic from the hovercraft operator that the vessel may function with only 30 percent reliability. That means that if a plane is able to land, drop off the mail and take off, the mail may go unmonitored -- possibly surrounded by a planeful of passengers, as well -- for unspecified lengths of time, an undesirable situation.
According to Marty Robbins, general manager of Hoverlink LLC, which operates the hovercraft, that 30 percent statistic is no longer accurate.
"There's more behind the story there," Robbins said. "At the time I made the statement -- and this goes with keeping comments in context -- we had just gotten to Akutan and Akun (with the hovercraft) and our pilots hadn't spent any time working the ramps.
"Somebody asked me during a telephone call, 'what's the reliability factor today?' And I said, 'based on the ramp situation and the inexperience of our pilots, I would say 30 percent today.'"
Robbins said that that number had certainly improved, though he declined to specify a new reliability number.
"Things are gonna improve, and they have already, to a great degree," he said. "I think we're well above that number now. Our crews are practicing daily on the ramps and the crews are getting more experience. Weather's always going to be a factor, but right now I'd say it's the only limiting factor."
Original estimates for hovercraft reliability, based on a marine-access study from 2005, said that the hovercraft should be able to operate about 90 percent of the time. Robbins said that number was still the estimate, meaning that there would be 36 days out of the year when the hovercraft might not operate, mostly between November and February.
The hovercraft was delivered from King Cove, a village similar to Akutan with the same kind of accessibility problems. There, it enjoyed a reliability rate of about 75 percent. Due to problems with icing, it suffered even more in winter. Before being transferred to Akutan, the hovercraft underwent an upgrade and repair that includes a de-icing system, so officials hope that will help alleviate the problem.
Robbins said he could see why PenAir made the decision to terminate service. Even though PenAir has been trying to eliminate its service to some of Alaska's smaller communities, Robbins said the rocky beach the Goose was forced to use is no laughing matter.
"I can fully understand their reluctance in their decision to stop using that beach," he said. "It's a beach that's covered with small roundish stones about the size of a football or softball. They're not jagged, but it's still not good."
PenAir doesn't face any legal action for giving up on service to the community, according to Bill Mosley, a DOT spokesman with the Essential Air Service program. "There's not specific sanctions for PenAir stopping service, but they're not going to get paid for whatever they don't deliver for the rest of the contract," Mosley said.
Cost and effect
It remains to be seen what impact the hovercraft will have on the budget of the Aleutians East Borough. Borough Administrator Rick Gifford told KUCB in August that the hovercraft has an expected operating cost of $200,000 per month and, according to at least one estimate, annual ticket sales could cover less than two months of that.
Gifford said Friday that the ticket price for a one-way trip between Akun and Akutan will run $100 -- tacking on $200 to any round-trip ticket to or from the community. During a borough assembly meeting earlier this month, Assemblyman Paul Gronholdt expressed concern over projected revenue of $330,000 from ticket sales in fiscal year 2013, which began July 1.
Gronholdt said that he personally would not sign the contract with Hoverlink to operate the hovercraft, based on the existing numbers. A vote on the issue wasn't taken at that meeting.
Gifford said that he wasn't sure how that $330,000 in projected ticket sale revenue was determined. Gifford is relatively new to the position, and he said that number was likely determined before much was settled with the Akutan hovercraft plan. He said they would have to re-evaluate the estimates after the operating costs and the expected revenue streams were better established.
Public comment on the proposed EAS contract with Grant Aviation is due by Nov. 8, but Bill Mosley with DOT said that they hoped to see the comments earlier to speed up the process. Until then, getting to and from Akutan could be a roll of the dice.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com