Flight reductions cause complications in Kotzebue resident’s custody exchange

The Ralph Wien Memorial Airport in Kotzebue. (Wikimedia commons photo)

Residents of the Northwest Arctic Borough have dealt with reductions in air travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic, due in part to a bankruptcy of the bush air carrier Ravn Alaska. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines also saw economic trouble which impacted their established passenger service to Kotzebue.

Some Alaskans might have never considered the intersection between air travel and child custody. But for Kotzebue resident Maija Lukin, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how linked these aspects of her life can be.

“Generally, I would have just stayed home,” she said. “But because we share custody of our granddaughter with her parents, one month on one month off, we have to do a child exchange which is essential travel under the state mandates.”

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Alaska Airlines announced schedule reductions in late March, in response to an unprecedented 80% drop of flight purchases. The company slashed its overall schedule, which averages about 1,300 flights daily, by 70%. In April, these reductions showed up in the company’s Kotzebue site like this: Twice daily flights were reduced to one midday flight, and no more flights on weekends. This made things a little more complicated for Lukin’s family.

“With a two-year-old you have to get off the flight, you have to actually walk her over to the baggage area or to her parents and then you have to stay overnight because you can’t get back on the same jet,” she said.

Kotzebue resident Maija Lukin with her granddaughter. (Photo courtesy of Maija Lukin)

One flight per day means arranging for lodging in Anchorage as well as anticipating a return to Kotzebue while considering the risk of infecting others in both places. The Northwest Arctic Borough’s incoming travel mandates require testing and quarantining upon arrival home. Lukin says she was ultimately able to stay with family in Anchorage. However, concerns about spreading the virus are ever-present.

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“You kind of find yourself in this situation of ‘Where am I going to stay? How am I going to make sure I’m not bringing anything back?’ And then it also forces us to get a coronavirus test once a month,” Lukin said.

The family has gotten used to this process over several cycles, though it is more of a strain than usual. The two-year-old in tow also has to take the uncomfortable swab test upon arrival to the Kotzebue airport along with other incoming passengers.

“She does really well,” Lukin said, “She actually told the nurse ‘Good job!’ when done doing her test.”

Recently, she found it made sense to remain outside of the Northwest Arctic region for the entire month of the other party’s custody period by traveling to the Southeast where her husband is working for the summer.

An itinerary that normally could have been accomplished in a day or two is now taking three or four days with worry over lodging, irregular flight schedules and COVID-19 tests along the way depending on differing local restrictions. 

Some flight patterns that residents have relied on for years are now disrupted because connections in Anchorage and other hubs cannot always be made like normal. 

Besides some personal leave taken during long flights, Lukin has been able to keep up with her fulltime job by teleworking in airports or anywhere with an internet connection.

She says she has seen impacts on medical travel as well as food security for others in the community due to flight reductions. She says effectively being forced to shop locally means a food budget only stretches about half as far as a well-calculated grocery trip to Anchorage might.

“You have to have food,” Lukin said. “It’s a food security issue, definitely, because of reduced flights and increased travel restrictions.”

However, amid the domino effect of reduced flights on even essential travel, she says the community has continued to adjust.

“People are really resilient up here and kind of go with the flow anyway,” Lukin said. “We basically survive by being okay with things that are happening around us and working through those things.”

In October, Alaska Airlines flights out of Kotzebue are expected to revert back to the pre-pandemic schedule, with two flights per day and weekend service to Anchorage. But with economic uncertainty as well as rising cases of COVID-19 all over Alaska, it’s unknown if those schedules will remain as open.

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