After a lengthy approval process with the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, Aleutian Airways now is offering its 50-passenger Saab 2000 aircraft for charter flights.
Operating charter flights is the next step in the effort to offer scheduled service between Anchorage and Dutch Harbor, Sand Point, King Salmon and Cold Bay, according to airline spokesperson Ashley Roy.
Aleutian Airways’ certification is the latest move that may shake up Alaska’s aviation ecosystem, which consists of Alaska Airlines jets and a collection of smaller planes to get travelers to their final destination.
Vacationers often have sticker shock when they start pricing out a trip to a remote Alaska destination. For example, a ticket with Grant Aviation from Dutch Harbor to Akutan is a 20-minute flight. The cost is $145 one-way. But then travelers have to purchase a one-way helicopter trip from the airport to town. That’s an extra $100.
Between Kotzebue and Buckland on Bering Air, the cost is $210 one-way for a 30-minute flight.
Flights to these Bush locations are not necessarily for sightseers. Rather, they’re designed for workers or medical patients.
“Medical travel, including Medicare patients, is very important to all Alaska air carriers,” said Matt Atkinson of Wright Air in Fairbanks. Atkinson also is president of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, a trade group.
Aleutian Airways’ prospective routes to Southwest Alaska will place it in direct competition with two other carriers: Alaska Airlines and Ravn Alaska.
Alaska Airlines flies more passengers around Alaska than all the other air carriers in the state combined. From Anchorage, they fly nonstop to Adak, Nome, Utqiagvik, Juneau and other destinations in between. But the smaller carriers provide that “last mile” service to dozens of smaller towns and villages.
As recently as 2019, Ravn Alaska flew to more than 100 destinations throughout Alaska. Today, though, Ravn flies its fleet of de Havilland Dash-8s to 10 destinations, including Dutch Harbor, St. Paul Island, Kenai, Homer and Valdez. The carrier recently pulled out of King Salmon, Dillingham and Kodiak, leaving Alaska Airlines as the only carrier to those communities.
Ravn’s service is unique, since it flies larger planes with up to 37 passengers. Other smaller carriers can take a maximum of nine passengers. From Anchorage to St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, Ravn charges $749 one-way.
Ravn also is developing a new international airline, Northern Pacific Airways. While the airline is remodeling a space at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in the underused north terminal, it’s running into delays in launching its 757 aircraft to Japan and Seoul.
“It makes more sense to launch the service in February or March of 2023, which gives us time to pre-sell tickets,” said Tom Hsieh, president of Northern Pacific.
In the interim, Northern Pacific has filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation, or DOT, to fly between Ontario, California and Mexico using the 757.
Travelers to Western Alaska typically fly Alaska Airlines from Anchorage to Bethel. From there, air carriers like Grant Aviation and Yute Commuter Service fly to dozens of villages with multiple departures throughout the day. While there are at least 54 villages that use Bethel as a hub, both air carriers reach out to communities north and east of town.
Grant Aviation also serves travelers in the Aleutians after they fly Ravn from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor or Cold Bay. Grant flies a collection of small planes, including the Cessna 207 and 208, Beechcraft King Air 200 and Piper Navajo.
In Northwest Alaska, Bering Air flies from Nome, Kotzebue and Unalakleet to 32 communities in the region. In addition to the carrier’s fleet of Cessna 208B Grand Caravans, Bering Air has a couple of Beech 1900 aircraft that seat up to 19 passengers. The air carrier also has several helicopters. Destinations include Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, St. Michael, Shaktoolik and Shishmaref.
From Fairbanks, Warbelow’s Air flies to communities up and down the Yukon River, including Beaver, Circle and Rampart. Warbelow’s flies twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftains.
Warbelow’s sister airline, Wright Air Service, flies north from Fairbanks to Alaska’s North Slope. But most flights start and end in Utqiagvik, to Kaktovik, Prudhoe Bay, Wainwright, Point Hope and Point Lay. In addition to passengers delivered by Alaska Air to either Prudhoe Bay or Utqiagvik, Wright takes freight and mail to the smaller communities.
From its hub in Juneau, Alaska Seaplanes flies to 14 communities in Southeast Alaska, including Angoon, Hoonah, Pelican, Tenakee Springs, Skagway and Haines.
Alaska Seaplanes flies as far south as Klawock on Prince of Wales Island. Service to most of Prince of Wales Island communities is through Ketchikan on Taquan Air.
This is not a complete list of passenger air carriers. Other carriers include Ryan Air out of Unalakleet and Island Air Express in Ketchikan. Alaska Air Transit and Iliamna Air both fly to remote villages from Anchorage’s Merrill Field.
There also are cargo carriers that offer passenger charters, including Alaska Central Express. Based in Anchorage, “ACE” has a fleet of Beech 1900 freighters. But one of them is configured for 18 passengers. Everts Air, a cargo carrier, also offers passenger service from Fairbanks to 12 communities.
Running an air service is a complex enterprise that takes a lot of time to set up, including necessary permitting, safety, maintenance and training protocols from the FAA and the U.S. DOT.
Both big and small air carriers are necessary to serve Alaska’s far-flung destinations.