Slowly, surely, the village of Akutan, located on its namesake island in the Aleutian Chain, is getting ready to use its new, $64-million airport. Construction was slated for completion last Saturday, right on schedule. There's just one nagging concern: how to reliably ferry passengers the last several miles across a narrow, windy strait separating runway from village -- a tricky problem that's earned the project national scorn as another boondoggle in the north, an Alaska "Airport to Nowhere."
Akutan is more than 750 miles away from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, and has long relied for its travel needs on the Grumman Goose, a World War II-era aircraft that is slowly fading from the aviation industry. There's a seaplane ramp on Akutan, but the island's rugged terrain has long thwarted construction of a useable runway. Such a runway has become critical as the Goose ages and the community's air taxi, Peninsula Airways, has cut back service.
Multimillion-dollar airports aren't exactly unheard of out in rural Alaska, where the only ways in or out of remote villages are often by air or sea. Problem is, Akutan's airport is six miles away from town -- across choppy waters of the North Pacific Ocean, on another island.
Last year, Aleutians East Borough officials were trying to figure out how to get airline passengers from the uninhabited island of Akun -- home of the runway -- to Akutan, a community of about 100 year-round residents that at times swells with nearly 1,000 seafood workers. The solution: a hovercraft, a huge 93-foot-long beast of an amphibious craft capable of carrying nearly 50 passengers and several vehicles on its deck.
Officials seem cautiously optimistic that the plan will work, but it's an altogether different animal than what project planners had originally conceived. Experiences with the exact same type of vessel intended to ferry passengers between two other Aleutian communities, King Cove and Cold Bay, gave pause to Borough officials. So, scheduled service has been revised and a private operator has been contracted to reliably operate the hovercraft in an unreliable environment.
Despite the worries, the hovercraft is now in Akutan. Its crew is conducting training runs between the city and the airport, getting a first-hand look at the strong seas and nasty weather conditions that are common in the Aleutians.
Marty Robbins, general manager of Hoverlink, LLC -- a company contracted by the Aleutians East Borough to conduct hovercraft operations in Akutan -- said that the crew was adjusting to conditions in the area.
"It takes a little getting used to," Robbins said. "The dynamic is always the wind and the waves and the water, but (the crew is) getting experience daily and figuring out the nuances."
So the plans surrounding the crossing from Akun to Akutan have changed in the years it has taken to get the airport built, and there are still concerns about how it will work. How did the project, and the hovercraft, get to where it is today? The answer lies 150 miles west, in King Cove, Alaska.
New life for idle hovercraft
The city of King Cove resembles Akutan in several respects -- each community has a small population that spikes during summer months as seasonal employees arrive to work at seafood processing plants. In King Cove, about 500 people find employment at the Peter Pan seafood cannery each year. In Akutan, the population reaches more than 1,000 when the Trident seafood processing plant, the largest in North America, is operating at its peak.
And now, each city has limited access to the outside world. King Cove largely relies on the 10,000-foot runway in Cold Bay, about 25 miles to the north, for its travel needs. Akutan has that six-mile gap between the runway and the community.
But two years later, in 2007, the same hovercraft began operating between King Cove and Cold Bay, and the real-world results were less rosy. The BHT-130 could only travel about 75 percent of the time, and as a result of that unreliability, the ridership suffered.
Former Aleutians East Borough Administrator Shannon Boyette said last year that between 2008 and 2010, the hovercraft operated at a loss of about $3 million. Until this spring, the hovercraft hadn't been used since November of 2010.
Enter Hoverlink, early in 2012. The private contractor inspected the hovercraft and found it in rough but working order, according to Robbins.
"Any boat that sits on a beach for two years is going to have issues," he said. "Corrosion from the water and the salt. There was heat in the cabins, but they didn't heat the engine rooms, and with all that salt and the cold and the snow, we had some clearing up to do."
Hoverlink installed a deicing system on the hovercraft, but that was the only major modification to the vehicle, Robbins said. Shortly after $1.4 million in repairs and upgrades, it passed Coast Guard inspection.
In August, and after a four-day trip from Cold Bay, the hovercraft finally made its Akutan debut.
Using Cold Bay's hovercraft should save the borough some money since it no longer needs one dedicated to the Akutan airport. That upfront construction and operation cost would have been about $13 million, but now it instead has to pay Hoverlink on a monthly basis.
Aleutians East Borough officials didn't respond to emails or calls by Monday afternoon, but borough administrator Rick Gifford told Unalaska radio station KUCB that it would cost about $200,000 per month -- or $2.4 million per year -- to operate the craft. Some of that would be recouped by ticket sales, collected by the borough.
Akutan Mayor Joe Bereskin said that although there were some concerns about how reliable the hovercraft would be, residents and visitors to Akutan are accustomed to waiting for transport. Often, bad weather would keep the stalwart Grumman Gooses from arriving as scheduled.
"I think daily service will increase and improve," Bereskin said of the new runway and hovercraft link. "Regardless of whether it's the Goose or the hovercraft, the service will be better."
Airport project manager Sean Holland said that the original 2005 study, conducted by Seattle-based Glosten and Associates, still holds mostly true.
"Our hovercraft experts think the reliability is going to be pretty good," Holland said. "Once we had some wind data out there (on Akun Island) we had them take another look at it, and they're still along the same estimate of reliability."
Still, concerns remain about those times when the craft won't be able to run. The hovercraft has its own set of weather limitations, separate from those that limit the aircraft flying to the runway in Akun. Sometimes, it will be able to cross while planes can't land; other times, planes will have no problem landing while the hovercraft is detained by weather on one island or the other.
To accommodate this eventuality, the city and borough opted to purchase a modular camp on Akun island that was housing contractors performing work on the runway. Ray Mann, founder of RMA Consulting Group, which often spearheads civil engineering and project management for the city of Akutan, said that passengers will have the facility -- which can house between 65 and 70 people -- as an option in the event of an extended stranding on Akun.
But it won't be a free stay.
"The plan there is to operate it very much as a lodge/hotel type facility with meal service, rooms, full showers, laundry service and internet and so on," Mann said. He added that the city had just finished purchasing the facility from Kiewit Construction, which was performing the runway work on the island.
"They're still finishing the budgetary analysis to see to what extent it can be fully operated, partially operated or whatnot," Mann said. "Fuel costs and fixed costs are very extreme, and the city obviously doesn't want to lose money or subsidize the operation if it doesn't make sense financially."
Details were still being worked out last week and lodging costs, as well as per-passenger travel rates on the hovercraft still had yet to be determined.
Air service uncertain
The airport was set to have a "soft opening" on Sept. 1, meaning the runway will be open for service and the hovercraft will be able to run, though those final details of flight and hovercraft scheduling are still in the works.
Throwing another wrench in the mix is Peninsula Airways, the company that for years has provided service to Akutan via two Grumman Gooses. PenAir's Akutan service is aided by Essential Air Service, a government program that subsidizes regular flights to rural locations that otherwise may not merit regular air service from carriers.
Akutan is the last remaining Essential Air Service location for PenAir, as it tries to ramp down its smaller, air taxi service. PenAir CEO Danny Seybert said that the company is hoping to focus on its "mainline" routes with its larger Saab 340 aircraft, capable of carrying about 30 people.
PenAir still has several months left on its EAS contract, which is renewed on an annual basis. But earlier this month, the company filed a "termination of service" notice on the federal docket, announcing its intention to discontinue service to Akutan as soon after Sept. 1 as possible.
Mayor Joe Bereskin, in responding to PenAir's filing, called the request "disturbing," and said it "presents the community with an unwarranted set of circumstances."
Seybert said that PenAir has planned all along to continue some Akutan service, albeit to the new Akun runway in a different, twin-engine aircraft instead of the Gooses. But Bereskin expressed concern about the regular scheduling of those flights. Key to EAS is that it guarantees regularly-scheduled flights, almost a dozen per week in the case of Akutan.
PenAir receives $710,157 from the EAS program to provide service to Akutan using the Gooses. But that contract also applies to flying into the Akutan Seaplane base -- not the new airport. The state has already requested that the EAS-designated airport change from the seaplane base to the new airport on Akun. But what about the potential lack of scheduled flights to Akutan after Sept. 1? And what about the Gooses?
"In the City's view, continuation of service by the Grumman Goose beyond 1 September is not a reasonable option, other than as a backup to a new service plan," Bereskin wrote.
Seybert said that PenAir doesn't intend to bid on the new EAS contract to Akun, opening it up to other carriers. Grant Aviation recently stepped in and took over PenAir's EAS routes in Atka and Nikolski, so such a change of hands could take place in Akutan as well.
Unfortunately, PenAir can't simply call another carrier up to take over scheduled service. A bidding process is undertaken to level the playing field.
"Airlines aren't allowed to collude," Seybert said. "The way we communicate is by, hopefully, (other airlines) watching the docket and seeing that we cancelled service. Hopefully in another week, I'll see that they filed to fill that service."
On Aug. 31, the Department of Transportation filed an order prohibiting PenAir from terminating service and requested proposals for replacement service, due by Oct. 3.
The new EAS contract to Akutan would likely be cheaper than the more than $700,000 paid annually now, because traditional aircraft will be less expensive to maintain and operate than the unorthodox and aging Grumman Goose.
How does Trident benefit?
And what about Trident, that seafood company operating a huge seafood plant on Akutan Island and exponentially increasing the local population in the summer months?
It's too late to gripe about the Akutan airport project largely benefitting a single, private company. Of course it serves the community of Akutan as well, but the new runway at Akun is designed to accommodate planes capable of carrying 30 passengers. That's about one-third the full-time population of Akutan, a number of community members unlikely to be traveling at any one time.
So the runway will prove beneficial to Trident Seafoods when it flies employees each summer into the remote community. Where the initial money came from is no mystery: Ted Stevens, the late Alaska U.S. senator known for delivering big federal bucks to the state, "...tucked $3.5 million into a Senate spending bill" in 2007, according to a New York Times writeup from that year.
Akutan and Trident have a mutually beneficial relationship, though. In a state where many small communities have rampant unemployment and little means of external income, the Trident plant brings business and tax dollars to the isolated town.
Additionally, the new runway and a $31-million boat harbor paid for by the 2009 federal stimulus bring Akutan closer to the rest of the world, and Trident may step up its own infrastructure in the community in light of its greater accessibility. There's talk of a dock capable of handling container ships, so the more than 3 million pounds of seafood that the plant is capable of processing every day can be directly loaded into cold-storage units and delivered to market.
Meanwhile, Akutan continues to look into other projects. One such project, spearheaded by Ray Mann's RMA Consulting, looks to tap into geothermal energy for Akutan. Millions of dollars in Alaska Energy Authority grants have already been used looking into that resource, which Mann said has seen "very good results" thus far. He said that Trident is also examining the possibility with their own team, looking to cut down their operating costs at the plant -- but the community would benefit as well.
Akutan recently also got approval for an annexation of land that grew its town borders by 147 square miles. With the annexation, the land necessary for any geothermal drilling and the Akun runway now fall within the community's boundary.
Soon, if the hovercraft proves itself as a reliable connection, and other projects continue making progress, Akutan may become known as the biggest little village in Alaska.
Contact Ben Anderson ben(at)alaskadispatch.com