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St. Paul Island works to keep air service after airline sale

  • Author: Associated Press
  • Updated: December 19, 2018
  • Published December 19, 2018

The city of St. Paul on the Bering Sea island of St. Paul Island. (ADN archives 2008)

Residents of a remote Western Alaska island are concerned about a possible lapse in air service after PenAir was purchased by another airline.

PenAir provided regular flights to St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, but the company filed for bankruptcy and Ravn Alaska agreed to buy it earlier this year, KTVA-TV reported this week.

"Once the asset sale of PenAir is complete it is uncertain if flights to St. Paul will continue," said Missy Roberts, a spokeswoman for PenAir. "As we receive further information we will inform our customers and the community of St. Paul."

The sale is expected to close this week. The uncertainty has locals like Larry Nutter worried.

"My major concern is the quality of life for the people on the island," Nutter, who manages the only grocery store in the largely Aleut community, said Wednesday.

Nutter, who is not Aleut, is most worried for St. Paul's many elders, who must fly to Anchorage 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) to the east, for doctors' appointments. The village only has a clinic for minor ailments, he said.

Another worry is the impact on goods flown in, Nutter said. With the store, most of the inventory is barged in on monthly runs. A cargo carrier flies in perishable foods through a program that allows mail to bypass the Postal Service, with goods flown from Anchorage and Fairbanks to communities off the road system. But that cargo carrier has an arrangement with PenAir, and it's unclear how it will be affected by the sale, Nutter said.

And the Opilio crab season, among fisheries made famous by Discovery Channel reality show "Deadliest Catch," is again expected to bring fishing crews to St. Paul in a couple weeks. The crews arrive in their vessels, but processing workers must be flown there, Nutter said.

"Without processors, that could slow the start of the season," he said.

Ravn is working to obtain certification for its plane to fly over water to service the area, but that certification is not expected until February, city manager Phillip Zavadil said.

"Our community is working together to do everything we can to prevent any lapse in service," Zavadil said.

City and tribal leaders are planning to meet with the federal transportation officials to request help in maintaining air service, said Amos Philemonoff, president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul.

"We are the only community that has so much water between us and the mainland that PenAir serves," Philemonoff said.

Officials are hoping the U.S. Department of Transportation might expedite the certification for Ravn's aircraft, or issue a "hold in order" and pay for the current plane servicing St. Paul to continue until Ravn can take over operations.

Philemonoff said he is concerned about the immediate need for groceries and supplies that are delivered by air and access to medical services that aren't available in St. Paul. About 450 people live on the island.

“We live out in the middle of the Bering Sea and all we have is a clinic with mid-level care,” Philemonoff said. “If anything serious happens, we need to get them on a plane and to a higher level of care.”