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Alaska Airlines and Ravn Air decisions harm Unalaska

  • Author: Frank Kelty
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 18, 2019
  • Published November 18, 2019

FILE - This Oct. 17, 2019, file photo shows a commuter airplane that crashed near the airport in a small Alaska community on the Bering Sea in Unalaska, Alaska. The flight crew of the plane that crashed in the remote Alaska community in October, fatally injuring a man, abandoned an initial landing attempt and faced stronger winds on their second try before the plane went off the runway, according to a federal report released Friday, Nov. 15. (Jim Paulin via AP, File)

In a recent letter to the mayor of Unalaska, Alaska Airlines announced that it will cease service to Unalaska through the end of May 2020. In my opinion, this is a terrible way for Alaska Airlines to treat its loyal customers in Unalaska and the neighboring Aleutian Island communities. Local residents, businesses and the seafood industry have spent millions of dollars for Alaska Airlines tickets over the past several years.

Unalaskans have been left with no scheduled air service for the past month, leaving locals scrambling to organize expensive charter flights or having to cancel medical trips and vacations. How can Alaska Airlines justify walking away from its federally certified listed route to this area for another six months? As the preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report clearly stated, it was pilot error that caused the tragic accident on Oct. 17; not the runway, not the Saab 2000, not even the weather!

The Seybert family (former owners of Pen Air) operated the Saab 2000 for five years on this route with no problems. Do think this community is happy with being stuck with the Ravn Dash 8 aircraft? No, we are not happy that the Saab 2000 is not returning to this route. I will remind Alaska Airlines that the Saab 2000, which was thoroughly researched for this route by the Seybert family, was found to be the aircraft best equipped to handle the distance and the Unalaska airport. In my estimation, the Seyberts found the right aircraft. The Saab 2000 takes two hours to Anchorage, with no fuel stops, and it is able to take passengers’ luggage most of the time.

Ravn’s Dash 8 aircraft will set air travel to Unalaska back five years, similar to when the Saab 340 was used for this route. Like the Saab 340, the Dash 8 has limited capacity, requires mid-route refueling, and baggage will be limited to one bag or bumped. And because the Unalaska airport operates only in daylight, we can expect flights to be turned back due to late afternoon departures from Anchorage.

With air service now transferred to Ravn, Unalaskans will be burdened with a higher ticket price, estimated at $1,250–$1,300, for a round-trip ticket just to Anchorage. Additionally, with Alaska Airlines’ decision to exclude the Anchorage–Unalaska route from its frequent flyer mileage plan, local residents will be faced with no choice but to pay exorbitant prices for tickets that are already the most expensive in the state at $1,100 round trip! Those Alaska Air miles are critical for families, students and seafood industry folks to be able to afford travel to Anchorage and flights beyond. Is this the right way to treat a community that has been loyal to Alaska Airlines for more than 30 years?

The community is in an uproar over Alaska Airlines’ decision. It will impact the residents, elders and people who need to use miles for medical appointments and family emergencies. Consider the costs for a family of five to travel to Anchorage. It will now cost them $7,500! Alaska Airlines’ decision will impact student and teacher travel costs, not to mention the additional cost to the seafood industry that has contributed to Alaska Airlines’ profits over the years. Is this how they should be treated? I think not!

We don't know if the Saab 2000 will be used on this route again by Ravn. What kind of chaos will we have when we have weather delays during the starts of the A- and B-fishing seasons? How will Ravn handle moving the 300 people stuck in Anchorage and in Unalaska with the Dash 8s with only 27-35 seats? The traveling public will have to pay hundreds of dollars for meals and hotels in Anchorage and in Unalaska. Most of the fishing industry costs will be taken care of by their companies; but what about the local residents that will need to pay for lodging and meals waiting for a chance at a seat on these smaller airplanes?

In my opinion, I believe Alaska Airlines should have supported the Seybert family when they had the chance, prior to when this longstanding Alaska family and company was forced into bankruptcy. Another major mistake made by Alaska Airlines was allowing Ravn to use the Saab 2000 to fly all over Alaska, which wasn’t allowed when the Seybert family ran the operation with the Saab 2000. That aircraft should have stayed on the Bristol Bay/Aleutian routes with their most experienced pilots flying the Anchorage/Unalaska route. Instead, those pilots burned up their time flying to Fairbanks, Bethel, Kodiak and other communities. Ravn lost many of the experienced Pen Air Saab 2000 pilots when the company changed ownership, and the management team that the Seyberts had in place was either fired or quit.

The crash in October cost David Oltman his life and injured other passengers. This tragedy should not have happened.

Many of us will be writing letters to the editor for the Anchorage paper, the regional papers and to Alaska Airlines’ online feedback section. I am urging our local elected officials to get in touch with the Alaska delegation in Washington, D.C., to ask that they get involved with this issue, as well as Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

With Alaska Airlines’ decision to stop service for another six months, many of us believe that means Alaska will be deserting this community forever. Community members will be the ones to continue to suffer and at a huge financial cost.

I would remind Alaska Air that Unalaska/Dutch Harbor is the nation’s No. 1 commercial fishing port, with 50,000 passengers going through the Unalaska airport each year. Unalaska’s 5,000 local residents have been loyal to Alaska Airlines for decades.

Throughout the years, Alaska Airlines has been very supportive to the residents, local nonprofits and communities across Alaska with travel issues, and we greatly appreciate that.

I can only hope that Alaska Air will do the right thing and reevaluate its decision on this issue.

Frank Kelty is a former mayor and city council member for the City of Unalaska. He worked 30 years in the Alaska seafood industry and is a 50-year resident of Unalaska.

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