‘There’s no plan B’: As Unalaska flight delays continue, residents call for air service affordability, reliability

Unalaskans gather at City Hall on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 for a community meeting about air service to the island. (Photo via KUCB)

In the aftermath of this month’s fatal plane crash, Unalaskans held a community meeting on Friday to voice their concerns about the island’s air travel — specifically, its safety, reliability, and affordability. 

With Ravn Air Group’s decision to suspend regular flights until early November, several residents said their most immediate problems are the price and difficulty of securing seats on charter flights. 

“The cost to charter one Dash 8 plane was $27,000,” said Bri Dwyer, whose family has chartered two flights from Ravn.

Initially, they were just looking to move their fishing crew. But Dwyer said they fronted the cost of the second charter to help community members stranded in Unalaska and Anchorage.

“The logistics of the Ravn charters are really left to the processors and to the larger companies that have the ability to charter a plane that large,” she said. “But I think we all know there are a lot more people trying to get in and out than just the processors.”

Ravn President Dave Pflieger said the airline can’t help individuals to navigate the charter process, citing regulations against it. Officials at Ravn’s marketing partner, Alaska Airlines, said the same. 

Ravn officials also declined to share how they arrived at charter pricing. The airline is running those flights as an interim measure while it works to get its De Havilland Dash 8 aircraft certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“We’re doing our best to get regularly scheduled commercial service going,” said Pflieger. “Unfortunately, it just takes some time for us to get ready to do that. So right now, we’re stuck. We can only do charters.”

Though the airline is planning to return to the bigger, faster Saab 2000s, Pflieger didn’t offer a timeline for doing so. Ravn officials also said they didn’t have a flight schedule, ticket pricing, or baggage policy to share for regular Dash 8 services. And they didn’t know yet whether travelers will able to book Dash 8 trips with Alaska Airlines miles.

The number of unknowns contributed to some Unalaskans’ long-term concerns about the island’s air travel.

“There’s no backup plan. There’s no plan B,” Doug Leggett said. “If this was a major disaster and you had a lot of people hurt or something, what’s the plan? I thank [Dwyer] for putting together the charters, but are we really left to that? Just individuals groveling for charters? And individuals having to compete against seafood plants with bigger pocket books?”

In exploring options to address Unalaska’s stalled service, the City Council is considering an emergency declaration. Officials are also planning to discuss a future infrastructure project to lengthen the island’s short runway. That way, some said the community could welcome larger planes — and perhaps attract more airline competition.

Related: Unalaska declares emergency over suspended air service; city plans to charter flights for community

Laura Kraegel covers Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands for KUCB . Originally from Chicago, she first came to Alaska to work at KNOM, reporting on Nome and the Bering Strait Region. (laura@kucb.org / 907.581.6700)

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