Passenger air travel in Alaska has changed dramatically in the past few weeks.
In late March, the state instituted a ban on non-essential in-state travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though officials have since relaxed restrictions on traveling by car on the road system.
The sudden drop-off in passenger traffic precipitated RavnAir’s bankruptcy and subsequent cessation of service. Interstate jet carriers like Alaska Airlines and Delta have parked planes and slashed schedules.
But throughout Western Alaska, some people still need to travel. Whether it’s the phone company’s technician or a veterinarian to vaccinate dogs after a rabid coyote attack, traveling by air is the only year-round travel option to almost all of the communities in the region.
Perhaps it’s time to update the U.S. Postal Service’s unofficial motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night (nor pandemic) stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
That’s because the mail is what’s keeping Alaska aviation on life support for travelers until the worst of the pandemic is behind us.
“The Postal Service understands both its obligation to deliver mail to rural Alaska as well as the importance of those mails to the communities. We are very proud of the service we perform as well as understand the necessity of that service to our Alaskan customers,” wrote David Rupert, a USPS spokesman.
There are several bigger air carriers that take mail and freight to hubs around the state, including Alaska Airlines, Northern Air Cargo, Lynden Air Freight and Everts Air Cargo. Hub destinations include Anchorage, Fairbanks, Bethel, Utqiagvik, King Salmon and Unalakleet. From there, USPS depends on smaller planes to the scores of remote villages throughout the region.
Under the Alaska bypass mail system set up in the 1970s, a large portion of mail (sometimes including groceries) to Bush Alaska can skip the stop at the post office all together and go straight to the air freight office of the accepting airline. After that stop, the mail is “tendered” to a participating air carrier to get to its final destination: to communities like Savoonga and Goodnews Bay. Compensation for air carriers is complex and the legislation has been updated several times since its inception. But the directive for bypass mail is to support those air carriers who also offered passenger and non-mail freight service.
And that’s what’s happening now in Western Alaska. There aren’t a lot of people moving around. It’s mostly freight and mail. Since RavnAir is out of the picture, this gives the remaining air carriers a brief window to scramble. This is particularly important to communities where Ravn offered the only scheduled passenger service, including St. Paul Island and Dutch Harbor. Bob Hjadukovich, the founding CEO of RavnAir (who still is a stockholder), laments the potential loss of the carrier’s lift and infrastructure throughout the state. “Without Ravn, travel in Bush Alaska will go back 20 years,” he said. “They (Ravn) have 47 facilities throughout the state that are built for mail, freight and passengers,” he said.
Steve Deaton is a vice president at Ace Air Cargo in Anchorage. Before that, he managed the transportation of mail in Alaska for 25 years. “In Bethel, we tested the (bypass) system for six months and then implemented it,” he said. “It’s as efficient today in its design as when it was first rolled out.”
The bypass mail segment is a unique piece of the puzzle for rural air carriers. But USPS still sends letters and packages, too. For example, bypass mail is available only if you have 1,000 pounds. It is only accepted in Anchorage or Fairbanks. Then, there are requirements for putting it on a pallet and shrink-wrapping it. Anything smaller than that — letters and a box of cookies for your aunt in Kivalina, for example — goes through the post office. All of that mail, in addition to the bypass mail, is “tendered” to participating air carriers.
A portion of the mail goes to cargo air carriers like Northern Air Cargo and Ace Air Cargo. But a bunch of it goes to the small airlines that connect the communities in rural Alaska. That includes Grant Aviation, Yute Commuter Service, Ryan Air, Bering Air, Wright Air and Warbelow’s. These small airlines are “part 135” carriers, restricted to a maximum of nine passengers on a scheduled flight.
In the coming weeks or months when passenger air travel is hobbled by the pandemic, mail and freight are providing an essential lifeline to these air carriers. When travelers return to the air in limited numbers, it’s possible there may be some tourists going on a fishing float trip. Or maybe to a remote site to see some bears. It’s more likely there will be villagers headed to an appointment at a regional hospital in Utqiagvik, Nome or Bethel. Depending on the route, medical travel can make up more than 50% of the load on a flight. Then there are technicians, mechanics and carpenters that are trying to do as much work as possible during the summer construction season.
Bypass mail is not the only revenue stream for rural air carriers. The Department of Transportation offers “Essential Air Service” subsidies to air carriers to serve remote communities. In November 2019, there were 60 EAS routes around the state. Alaska Air Transit receives $114,013 per year to fly between Merrill Field and Tatitlek. Alaska Airlines operates a “milk run” flight to Juneau that stops in Cordova and Yakutat. The airline receives a $3,480,868 annual subsidy to serve Cordova and another $3,783,552 per year to fly to Yakutat. In Southeast Alaska, the bypass mail plan doesn’t exist. But the EAS program includes remote communities like Kake, Hydaburg and Gustavus.
Air carriers in Alaska come in all shapes and sizes: from an owner-operator with just one plane, all the way up to Alaska Airlines. In the competitive markets, each of the carriers works to get a piece of the passengers, mail and freight. In the midst of a crisis like the COVID-19, it’s clear that this network of operators plays a crucial role in keeping Alaska communities connected.
[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]