Since the airline Ravn Alaska stopped service to Kenai earlier this month, the airport has been undergoing changes. Other airlines servicing the airport are increasing their number of weekly flights, and airport officials say soon, they’ll look into bringing on a new airline to offer regular flights to Kenai.
Mary Bondurant, the interim manager of the airport, said it was a surprise when Ravn decided to stop service, and lay off its 17 staff members at the Kenai airport. Ravn flew the highest percentage of passengers at the airport, and used larger aircrafts than other airlines. It ran 11 flights a day, and flew between 3,500 to 5,000 passengers a month.
Bondurant said the other airlines are stepping up.
“It most definitely is gonna help pick up the slack with Ravn not being here,” she said.
One of those airlines, Grant Aviation, announced up to 50 additional flights a week following the end of Ravn service.
Grant Vice President Dan Knesek said his airline increased its flights out of Kenai for the same reason they flew emergency cargo in western Alaska for free after Typhoon Merkbok: because they feel an obligation to the places they fly.
“Kenai is one of our communities that we feel we are a big part of, and they were losing some service, so we’re going to do everything we can to provide the service that the community needs,” Knesek said.
Grant has reverted to its busier summer schedule, adding a fourth pilot to its Kenai service. The airline is now flying two aircraft nonstop between Kenai and Anchorage from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays, and also expanded weekend service.
Knesek said Grant is also looking at adding a couple of planes to its fleet, which would add even more options for Kenai flyers.
The Kenai airport’s other regular-service airline, Kenai Aviation, has also announced increased flight options. It will add 14 more weekly flights between Kenai and Anchorage beginning Nov. 1.
Bondurant said in the short-term, the other airlines stepping up has made a big difference after Ravn’s departure.
“I haven’t heard anybody complaining about not getting a flight or not being able to travel,” she said.
When it comes to longer-term solutions, the airport is looking to bring in a third airline. Bondurant said the search hasn’t begun quite yet because the airport still has an operating agreement with Ravn.
“As soon as that agreement with Ravn is terminated, the city is going to be actively looking for another airline,” she said. “We have three ticket counter spaces, a brand new terminal rehab project was completed in 2021. We’ve got the runway, we’ve got the airspace, we’ve got the approaches, so we’ll be looking for another airline.”
But she said that could take some time, because airlines don’t typically have available aircraft sitting around to increase service. She said other operators are struggling with the same staff shortages that motivated Ravn to pull out.
Knesek, with Grant, said his company has adapted to those shortages by increasing training staff, and tapping an Anchorage-based aircraft for the Kenai route so they can staff it with an Anchorage-based pilot. But, he said it’s been a difficult time across the industry.
“I don’t know of a single operator that has to hire pilots or mechanics right now saying it’s easy,” he said. “There’s nothing easy about the skill and certified labor shortage that we’re having right now.”
Knesek’s idea for a solution? Focusing on technical education in Alaska schools, and providing more pathways for Alaska students to become pilots or mechanics.