Sky truckers of the Last Frontier meet up in Anchorage

Alaska is a state full of aviation geeks, or “AvGeeks.”

In addition to the large number of private pilots who call Alaska home, there are dozens of commercial operators that haul passengers, mail and freight from Kaktovik to Ketchikan, Kotzebue and King Salmon. These are the sky truckers of the Last Frontier.

Last week, the Alaska Air Carriers Association, or AACA, gathered at AvGeek Central: the Alaska Aviation Museum, on the shore of Lake Hood in Anchorage. Walking through the museum, you’ll see planes hanging from the ceiling and other planes, like a Grumman Goose, that are big enough to set up a picnic under a wing. The museum has displays on the Battle of the Aleutians in World War II, as well as stories of Alaska aviation greats, including Bob Reeve, Ray Petersen and the Wien family.

Travelers in Anchorage may not recognize some of the names of these small-plane operators: Alaska Seaplanes, Ryan Air or Yute Air Taxi. That’s because many of us are spoiled by daily jet service between Anchorage and a handful of destinations in the Lower 48 and Hawaii.

But for Alaskans who live off the road system, reliable air transportation is essential. Whether it’s traveling for work, to see the doctor or to get together with friends and family, airplanes and air carriers are essential.

In fact, there’s a federal program called Essential Air Service that subsidizes air carriers to fly critical routes. Throughout the country, there are 172 such routes; 61 are in Alaska.

The biggest planes in the air around Anchorage belong to the U.S. military and to the many international cargo carriers that stop for fuel: FedEx, UPS, DHL, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air Cargo and Kalitta Air, among others. Those entities were not represented at the meetup.


The biggest operator in the room was Alaska Airlines, which has strategic partnerships with many smaller carriers to make sure travelers, their luggage and freight make it to their final destination. Ravn Alaska offers travelers a chance to “earn and burn” Alaska Air miles on all of their flights between Anchorage and Dutch Harbor, St. Paul Island and Sand Point, among other destinations.

At the AACA convention, there were federal officials from Washington, D.C., with the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation. It is the federal regulators who monitor the airspace above Alaska, provide air traffic control throughout the state and investigate accidents, through the National Transportation Safety Board.

But the state of Alaska has an outsized role in maintaining more than 130 airports throughout the state. Troy LaRue is the operations manager for the Division of Statewide Aviation, part of Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

“I got my start at the airport in Dutch Harbor,” said LaRue, and he rose to become airport manager. “We need more weather in Alaska,” he quipped.

By “more weather,” LaRue isn’t wishing for more wind or more snow. Rather, he’s echoing what he hears from operators around the state about weather reporting. Without weather reporting at an airport, many flights cannot operate — even if the sky is blue and the sun is shining.

“Alaska has 120 weather stations,” said LaRue. “Forty of them have problems right now.”

Components like accurate weather reporting are essential for safe flight operations. Even if all the airplanes are in tiptop shape, if current weather conditions cannot be transmitted, all “Instrument flight rules,” or IFR, operations grind to a halt.

Last year, LaRue and his crew oversaw construction of eight weather stations to help with the situation. “We put stations in airports like Coldfoot and Perryville,” said LaRue. “And we’re hoping to build more.”

Chatting over sandwiches during a lunch break, aviation professionals talked about the right kind of sand to use on a runway, as opposed to a chemical compound. They discussed how drones will be managed around busy airports.

But there was a social function to the convention as well. It was a chance for friends to gather and share stories. Even though Alaska is huge, the aviation community is relatively small.

Brian Whilden, general manager of Aleutian Airways in Anchorage, has overseen flights since November between Anchorage and Dutch Harbor on the Saab 2000 aircraft. I ran into him at a coffee break at the convention. He shared that the company is adding two daily flights between Anchorage and King Salmon on June 1. As more of the Saab aircraft come online, Whilden said, he expects to add service to more destinations from Anchorage.

Ravn Alaska also flies between Anchorage and Dutch Harbor on the de Havilland Dash-8, which is slower than the Saab 2000.

Between Anchorage and King Salmon, Aleutian Air will be competing with Alaska Airlines. In June, Alaska Air flies two 737s each day between Anchorage and King Salmon.

There were a couple of Cessna Aircraft representatives at the convention. The Cessna 208 Caravan is a real workhorse in rural aviation. But the company is marketing its new twin-engine aircraft, the SkyCourier. There’s quite a bit of chatter about which carrier will bring these planes online first. Matt Atkinson of Wright Air Service speculates that his company may be “third or fourth” in line to get the plane. “We don’t like to be early adopters when it comes to new planes, " he said.

The SkyCourier has a payload of 5,000 to 6,000 pounds. It can be configured for up to 19 passengers. But most prospective operators, including Bering Air in Nome, are limited to nine passengers. The rest of the plane could be configured to haul mail and freight.

One of the busiest air corridors in the state is between Anchorage and Kenai. Ravn Alaska has eight weekday flights on the Dash-8. Grant Aviation offers 15 flights each weekday aboard Cessna 208s. Now Kenai Aviation has expanded its schedule to offer eight weekday flights starting in May.

Kenai Aviation is flying the Tecnam Traveller P2012, a wing-over, twin-engine aircraft that looks like it’s the baby brother to the de Havilland DHC 6 Twin Otter.


Kenai Aviation also has beefed up its service between Anchorage and Homer, with four flights per day during the week. Ravn Alaska also offers four flights each weekday.

I admit a bias toward passenger flights. But the big operators in rural Alaska are freight-only airlines like Northern Air Cargo and Everts Air. Everts does offer passenger flight from Fairbanks — but most of its planes are cargo-only.

But in rural Alaska, almost all passenger planes also run freight routes. “Passenger flights are important,” said Matt Atkinson of Wright Air and outgoing board chair at the AACA. “But you win the hearts and minds of the people with mail and freight.”

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and For more information, visit