Anchorage travelers enjoy many travel options, including seasonal over-the-top flights to Europe on Condor and Icelandair, plus an increasingly competitive group of airlines offering service to the Lower 48.
But there are dozens of smaller airlines around the state that move travelers on "the last mile" between long, paved runways and a gravel strip on the edge of the wilderness. Many of them are gearing up for the summer with new flight offers, new equipment or both.
The economics of providing service to sparsely populated areas in Alaska is different. The federal government, through its Essential Air Service (EAS) program, offers subsidies to air carriers to provide flights.
Rather than catering to vacationers who want a quick getaway in Arizona, the small air carriers rely on a combination of mail, freight and must-fly passengers. These include travelers headed to the doctor, prisoners and government employees. There also are seasonal bumps for fishermen, hunters and adventurers.
Most of the small planes that provide the "last mile" connectivity are limited to just nine passengers per plane.
Alaska's largest regional carrier, Ravn Alaska, has planes that can take up to 37 passengers, the deHavilland Dash-8. But the carrier also has many other small planes to serve more than 100 destinations around the state.
Derek Shanks is Ravn's chief commercial officer. Although he's new to Alaska, Shanks has plenty of international travel industry experience. His most recent assignment was at Air Mauritius, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. When he arrived and started analyzing Ravn's routes and the seasonal demand, his team adjusted the flights to accommodate the addition of two new markets: King Salmon and Dillingham.
"Our analysis showed there is an opportunity for growth there," said Shanks. The airline started flying there in mid-February, with fares dipping as low as $99 each way. Currently, the rates are $139 each way.
Although Ravn's Dash-8s are configured for 37 seats, the carrier removed eight seats to accommodate additional freight and checked luggage.
In addition to the Anchorage-King Salmon-Dillingham-Anchorage service, Ravn flies nonstop from Anchorage to Kodiak, Homer, Kenai, Valdez, Bethel, Fairbanks, Unalakleet and St. Marys.
Many regional carriers count on bigger airlines like Alaska Airlines to bring them to hubs like Nome, Fairbanks or Juneau.
Alaska Seaplanes in Juneau operates a fleet of deHavilland Beavers on floats, Cessna 208 Caravans and a single high-speed, pressurized Pilatus PC-12. The new Pilatus aircraft was added to accommodate medical travel within southeast Alaska. Kent Craford, the company president, has been working for more than two years to start up service from Juneau to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
"Air North used to fly the route, so we know there's traffic," said Craford. General Manager Carl Ramseth was in Whitehorse this week seeking final government approval for the route. "Our goal is to provide three flights a week this summer," said Ramseth.
Island Air Express, based in Craig, also acquired a Pilatus PC-12. Owner Scott Van Valin likes the ability to fly above the weather, which is not an option in the non-pressurized Cessna 208. For the short run between Klawock and Ketchikan, that's not as much of an issue. But Van Valin will use the new aircraft to launch service between Ketchikan and Petersburg and Ketchikan-Juneau. Right now, there's just one nonstop per day on Alaska Airlines.
Up in Nome, David Olson is the director of operations for Bering Air. "Just a couple of years ago, we traded in many of our planes for 10 brand-new Cessna 208s. These are the 'EX' version with the larger engines," he said. The airline has three hubs: Nome, Kotzebue and Unalakleet. It serves 13 villages from Nome, 12 from Kotzebue and four from Unalakleet.
"The village on Little Diomede Island used to plow an ice runway in the winter so we could fly there," he said. "But for the past five years, the ice has not been stable enough for us to land there," he said.
In addition to their scheduled service, Bering Air offers charter service to Russia. "It used to be more popular than it is now. Currently, our main customer is a cruise company that stops in Anadyr. We take care of their crew transfers," he said.
In Fairbanks, Matt Atkinson is part of the management team of two airlines, Wright Air Service and Warbelow's Air. He's also president of the Alaska Air Carriers Association. His combined fleet includes the largest collection of Piper Navajos in the U.S., plus several Cessna 208 Caravans, which is the workhorse of Alaska Bush travel.
"My job is to fine-tune the service to many of the communities served by both carriers," he said. Sometimes that involves consolidating flights and substituting larger aircraft. "It's definitely a balancing act," he said.
Communities like Tanana, Fort Yukon and Anaktuvuk Pass depend on regularly-scheduled flights, particularly for medical appointments.
These are just a few of many smaller air services that make up the air travel network in Alaska. Others include Grant Air, with up to 16 departures each day from Anchorage to Kenai. There also are several air carriers that operate out of Merrill Field.
So while most travelers are accustomed to flying on big planes, it's important to remember that jets are just part of puzzle that helps travelers stay connected from Kaktovik all the way to King Salmon and Kodiak.