A new airline called Aleutian Airways plans to start flying nonstop between Anchorage and the notoriously challenging airport in Unalaska this fall.
The weather-battered airport at Unalaska features a relatively short runway rimmed by water. The community has just under 5,000 residents that can swell to more than twice that during fishing seasons that make for crowded flights on and off island.
The new airline’s entry could mean the remote aviation-dependent community that experienced a fatal crash in 2019 and last year lost scheduled air service for months suddenly finds itself with two competing carriers.
Regular commercial service between Anchorage and Unalaska stopped in April 2020 with the bankruptcy of Ravn Air Group. The new company that emerged, Ravn Alaska, started scheduled charter flights between Anchorage and Unalaska last November.
Ravn’s DeHavilland Dash 8-100 makes the trip in three hours but sometimes needs to stop for fuel, adding more time.
Aleutian Airways announced this week it plans to fly Saab 2000s that can make the trip nonstop in two hours.
“There may be scheduled service there currently, but there’s a strong demand for better, more capable service,” said Kent Craford, Alaska Seaplanes president and co-owner of the joint venture behind the new Southwest Alaska carrier.
Aleutian Airways is a joint venture between Juneau-based Alaska Seaplanes and Florida-based Sterling Airways, according to a press release. Sterling, which now operates charter flights but has commercial certification, is a portfolio company of hedge fund manager Wexford Capital. Anchorage-based McKinley Capital Management LLC is also an investor.
Alaska Seaplanes will be marketing the flights under the Aleutian Airlines brand. Sterling will operate them.
Ravn CEO Rob McKinney was traveling this week around Alaska to mark the one-year anniversary of forming the new company, a spokesperson said. McKinney did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday and Wednesday.
An affiliate of Ravn’s predecessor acquired the Saab 2000 fleet during the bankruptcy auction of longtime Alaska aviation company PenAir in 2018.
It was one of those Saab 2000s that overshot the runway on landing at Unalaska in October 2019. The crash killed a Washington state man, the first crash-related fatality for a U.S. commercial airline in the last decade.
Federal investigators later found the pilots landed in gusty, shifting winds without the minimum 300 hours of flying time in the Saab 2000 required by PenAir. The first officer had 140 hours and the captain 101 hours.
Aleutian Airways officials say they plan to reinstitute “PenAir’s original stringent experience requirements,” according to the release.
Aleutian Airways is hiring former Pen Air pilots, mechanics and flight attendants with experience in the Saab 2000, Craford said, including some working now for Ravn. The company is leasing two of the planes with planes to add more to the fleet.
Ravn has said it plans to add a Dash 8-300 to the Unalaska route that can make the Anchorage trip faster.
As of Tuesday, the larger planes had yet to make an appearance, according to Unalaska city manager Erin Reinders, who said the community welcomes a new air carrier.
“We’ve talked about this at city council meetings several times over the last couple years ... competition is a good thing,” Reinders said. “Having multiple choices on who to fly and what airplane type to fly on is always a really valuable thing.”
In the absence of regular scheduled service after the crash, people in Unalaska and the busy port of Dutch Harbor began relying on charter flights. A Facebook group called “Unalaska Plane Charter Coordination” has 1,400 members who continue to book seats on charters even now, with Ravn operating.
Alaska Airlines also ended a marketing agreement on the Unalaska route, and with it a mileage plan that made travel more affordable, residents say.
Asked if Aleutian plans to work with Alaska on some kind of agreement, Craford said “we certainly understand the alue of that to the market here. And we are working accordingly.”
The airline plans to announce its flight schedule later this month, he said.