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Aviation

Ravn suspends air service, including mail deliveries, to most rural Alaska communities

Some of the Ravn Air Group aircraft that serve rural Alaska have been parked at Palmer Municipal Airport on Thursday. (Bill Roth / ADN)

FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE:

Following the stoppage of most Ravn flights, the North Slope Borough has announced an agreement with Ryan Air to serve North Slope villages as early as this weekend.

“I am happy to announce today that we have reached an agreement with Ryan Air to provide services to our villages that were impacted by this news,” Borough Mayor Harry K. Brower said in a news release. North Slope residents said multiple communities there relied solely or primarily on Ravn for air service.

“We understand the hardship Alaska businesses like Ravn Air are currently facing, and we appreciate their willingness to work with Ryan Air regarding the utilization of their existing facilities on the North Slope,” Brower said. “Details on facilities use and routes are still being worked out but our hope is to have Ryan Air operating in our communities this weekend.”

The borough and airline are working to ensure essential passenger service, bypass mail and freight service continues across the North Slope, according to the join statement by Ryan Air and the borough.

ORIGINAL STORY:

Ravn Air Group, which flies passengers to more than 115 Alaska communities as well as mail and freight, suddenly shut down many routes Thursday, citing coronavirus-related revenue declines.

The decision rippled immediately through far-flung, flight-dependent Alaska communities from Unalaska to the North Slope, leaving some at least momentarily without any passenger service.

The company is cutting its fleet from 30 planes to three, and eliminating routes to smaller villages that relied on RavnAir Connect for travel as well as deliveries and medical services.

The company also notified the U.S. Postal Service it could no longer bring mail to 180 communities, mostly in the northern part of the state, a USPS spokesman said Thursday. The notice left postal officials scrambling to find another way to get the mail to rural Alaskans.

A Ravn Connect Cessna 208B Grand Caravan en route from Bethel lands at Palmer Municipal Airport on Thursday, April 2, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Ravn had already reduced its schedule after experiencing a 90% drop in demand amid booking declines due to COVID-19, according to a company spokeswoman.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy on March 27 banned all nonessential travel within Alaska.

The company announced in a statement Thursday it was taking “further actions to drastically cut costs” and further reducing flying operations by 90%. Ravn is shrinking its fleet to three De Havilland Dash 8s.

That allows the company to continue service to communities it’s federally required to serve and continue flights to other markets served with the planes, the statement says.

These are the only communities Ravn is serving now: Kenai, Homer, Valdez, King Salmon, Dillingham, St. Paul, Bethel, Aniak, St. Mary’s, McGrath and Unalakleet.

Remaining locations being served

All RavnAir Connect aircraft will be parked and all operations stopped, the company says. RavnAir Alaska Dash 8 flights will continue to operate.

The company notified the Federal Aviation Administration of the reduction on Thursday. An agency spokesman couldn’t immediately say how many communities get commercial air service from Ravn alone.

RavnAir Group provides direct flights between Anchorage and larger communities like Fairbanks, Homer and Bethel.

But the majority of Ravn’s destinations were smaller Bush villages that relied on RavnAir Connect for essential deliveries and medical services, as well as routine travel and commuting, according to the company website.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, who represents the Bristol Bay region, expressed concern about the availability of fewer flights to transport COVID-19 tests collected in the region for processing. Alaska State Troopers said they do not expect the situation to limit troopers’ ability to respond to rural communities. The Alaska Department of Public Safety plans to rely on other air carriers and its own aircraft, said spokeswoman Megan Peters.

“Our department employs qualified pilots who routinely respond across the state for calls for service," she said. “Our essential services will continue uninterrupted.”

In Bethel, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. has been planning to provide COVID-19 testing in a majority of villages. Asked if the flight reduction would impact those plans, a spokesman said, “YKHC has reached out to the governor’s office for more information on Gov. Dunleavy’s plan regarding Ravn. We are awaiting reply.”

Ravn Connect aircraft that serve rural Alaska are parked at Palmer Municipal Airport on Thursday, April 2, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Grappling with Ravn’s departure

Unalaska, an Aleutian community of 4,000 with the busiest commercial fishing port by volume in the country at Dutch Harbor, relies on Ravn for direct Anchorage flights. A Ravn flight overran the runway at Unalaska last year, killing a Washington state man. It was the country’s first crash-related fatality for a U.S. commercial airline in a decade.

The city got word from Ravn midday Thursday that service would stop as early as Friday, according to city clerk Marjie Veeder. Unalaskans had already experienced a reduction from multiple daily flights to nine a week.

“Then down to 4 flights per week,” Veeder said in an email. "Then today — discontinuation.”

City officials said in a written statement Thursday afternoon they hope the discontinued air service was temporary and were “exploring options for continued commercial passenger service for our community" with the Alaska Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation, governor’s office and others.

The Ravn departure has left 17 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region without air service, according to Andrew Flagg, station manager for Yute Air in Bethel.

Yute is trying to start serving as many communities as possible, Flagg said.

“We can’t fill them all in. We’re not a big airline. We’re doing our best,” he said. “We’re going to do our best to not leave anyone stranded and if anyone’s sick, even the charter service will pick them up.”

The manager of the Alaska Commercial store in the Yukon River community of Mountain Village found out Ravn was shutting down that route at about 10 a.m. Thursday when he read a newspaper story about it.

“I called my supervisors,” store manager Porrin McCambridge said. “They called Ryan Air.”

Ryan Air will be handling all of the store’s deliveries for what should be the same cost, McCambridge said.

Asked about the personal effect of the shutdown, he said medevacs should be able to handle emergencies and coronavirus protections mean there’s little travel anyway: “At the moment, nobody is allowed to fly in or out of Mountain Village.”

North Slope Borough officials couldn’t immediately comment on the Ravn decision.

Northern Air Cargo, which delivers cargo and mail, uses Ravn employees to load and unload mail and freight at Utqiagvik. Ravn on Thursday told the company that station will continue to operate despite the shutdown, according to NAC vice president and general manager Gideon Garcia.

“We foresee no disruption in the delivery of bypass mail or freight to Barrow,” Garcia said.

Ravn Connect aircraft that serve rural Alaska are parked at Palmer Municipal Airport on Thursday, April 2, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

'Extremely difficult decisions’

More than a dozen Ravn Connect planes were parked at Palmer Municipal Airport by late afternoon; one after another landed at the Mat-Su airport through the day.

Hageland Aviation Services Inc., which is owned by Ravn Air Group, has a Part 135 maintenance facility at Palmer, according to airport superintendent Frank Kelly. Ravn brings planes in regularly for routine maintenance and storage depending upon their needs, Kelly said in an email.

Ravn CEO Dave Pflieger sent employees a message Thursday saying the company plans to apply for federal aid: “These are extremely difficult decisions that are essential to our ability to weather this crisis and successfully recover in the future, and it is for that reason that we will intend to apply on Friday for financial support from the U.S. government through the Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES).”

The former Era Aviation (now Corvus Airlines), Hageland Aviation Services and Frontier Flying Service out of Fairbanks – now a cargo and charter service – all operate under Ravn Alaska’s brand.

Ravn Air Group formed in 2015 as a Delaware corporation when private investor groups bought a majority interest in an Alaska-based group of operators. Private equity firms J.F. Lehman & Co — which focuses on defense and aerospace — and W Capital Partners bought in. One of the founders, the Hajdukovich family of Alaska, kept a minority interest in Ravn Air Group. John Hajdukovich was the longtime owner of Frontier.

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The company faced scrutiny after suspending service for weeks last year in the wake of the fatal plane crash that killed a Washington state man. A Ravn-operated Saab 2000 carrying 42 people overran the runway at Unalaska’s airport . A federal report on the probable cause of the crash is not expected to be released for some time.

The company’s decision this week to suspend service to many small Alaskan communities came as a surprise to the U.S. Postal Service, communications manager David Rupert said Thursday.

“There wasn’t long-term planning that went into this,” Rupert said. “Normally you do, you have some long-term planning that goes into this. This was not.”

Postal officials are hoping to find alternative providers as soon as possible, he said. USPS Transportation officials have filled the loss with other temporary service providers with only a few routes to be filled, according to a statement issued Thursday afternoon.

Dunleavy at a press briefing Thursday evening said other airlines were looking at stepping in to fill the gaps left by Ravn.

Representatives of several Alaskan air carriers including Yute and PenAir said they’re in discussions about their roles. Ravn bought PenAir and its assets, including the Saab 2000 planes, out of bankruptcy in 2018.

Grant Aviation CEO Rob Kelley said in a statement that the company has been “in non-stop and ongoing talks with the USPS and local hospitals in the markets we serve in an effort to make sure we do everything possible to continue to support rural Alaska’s passenger and cargo/mail delivery needs and help fill in the gaps where Ravn was the sole air carrier.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation in a statement Thursday called Ravn’s announcement “very concerning news for Alaskans — especially for our remote communities. We have worked hard to support federal programs like bypass mail and Essential Air Service, and we will continue to work to make sure that mail, as well as vital goods and services can continue to be delivered to rural Alaskan communities. There will undoubtedly be gaps, but Alaskans across the state are coming together to develop solutions.”

Reporter Kyle Hopkins and visual journalist Bill Roth contributed to this story.

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