The Aleutians East Borough is looking for a less expensive way to travel between the village of Akutan and the new airport on Akun Island, seven miles away by hovercraft. The goal is to find "something more sustainable on a long term basis," said borough administrator Rick Gifford.
Gifford said a committee of government agencies and Trident Seafoods will study alternatives.
Cost is the primary factor, since the hovercraft cost the borough about $3 million a year to operate, he said. The group will consider a different vessel, but will also look at keeping the hovercraft, he said Tuesday.
The borough has forecasted revenues of $500,000 per year, though he said more time is needed to determine the accuracy of the estimate. Passengers are charged $100 each way. Freight rates are 50 cents per pound, or $12.50 per cubic foot, whichever is greater. Separate rates are set for vehicles and medevacs.
From when the airport opened on Sept. 1 through Dec. 31, the hovercraft carried 518 passengers, delivered 41,718 pounds of cargo and mail, and 20,003 gallons of fuel, according to Gifford. The fuel is transferred from the hovercraft's tanks to a fuel truck on Akun, for the operation of facilities operated by the Akutan city government and the state transportation department, he said.
The group is in the early formative stage. It consists of representatives of borough government, Akutan city government, the state transportation department, and Trident Seafoods. It's first meeting, by teleconference, will be later this month, Gifford said.
Overall, Gifford said he's pleased with the hovercraft's performance. "I think it's done better than people thought," he said. "We're doing the best we can, given the weather."
In December, "bad weather days" idled the hovercraft 13 days, according to figures provided by the operator, Hoverlink, a subsidiary of Kvichak Marine, of Seattle.
Hoverlink general manager Martin Robbins said November and December are typically the worst months, where "50 percent operability is probably all that Mother Nature is going to allow."
Weather conditions should gradually improve, he said.
"We knew that going in, that those two months would be our biggest challenge," Robbins said.
The new airport including the hovercraft had a budget of $75.5 million, and the final numbers will be "under that slightly," according to construction project manager Sean Holland of the Alaska Department of Transportation.
While construction costs are all in, the only remaining variable involves the hovercraft, Holland said. "We're definitely not going to go over the 75 and a half million," Holland said Tuesday.
"We had a pretty tight contract, we had a good contractor, and it worked out pretty well," Holland said. Kiewit Construction built the airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration provided most of the funding, at about $52 million. Federal highway funds built the half-mile road between the airport and hovercraft landing, with the balance paid by the borough and state, with $1 million from Trident, according to Holland.
Holland said a landing craft might be more economical than the hovercraft. A conventional vessel would require the construction of a dock extending into the shallow waters of Surf Bay, he said.
Robbins said a landing craft would have its own problems, given the powerful surf hitting the beach of Surf Bay, where passenger traffic includes people carrying luggage and pushing baby strollers.
"You're not going to wade through knee-deep water to get off, and get on an airplane. That's not going to happen," Robbins said.
Robbins hadn't heard about the borough's new committee.
"That's years in the making, and nothing's going to happen overnight," he said. Any big change would likely involve the construction of expensive new dock facilities, Robbins said.
The paved 4,500-foot runway on Akun rolls up and down low hills.
Holland said that leveling a flat runway would have been a lot more expensive. As it was, a million cubic yards of rock were excavated, he said. The airport was designed to accommodate a Saab 340, he said. The 30-seat Saab 340 is what Peninsula Airways operates between Anchorage and rural Alaska hub communities, including Unalaska and Dillingham.
A three-strand barbed wire fence surrounds the airport, to keep aircraft safe from horses and cows that roam the island, Holland said.
Alaska Department of Transportation employees plow snow and maintain landing lights. Because of the remote location, the state stations two workers on the island. If a worker has a medical emergency, the other one could provide assistance, Holland said.