Mark Thiessen

No more flying with reindeer: Unique Alaska planes to retire

Claire Richardson remembers taking off in an airplane uniquely configured for Alaska when a horrible smell seeped into the passenger area. The captain soon came on the speaker to apologize for the odor, which was coming from 70 skittish baby reindeer headed for Texas. "Guess they all pooped as we lifted off from the runway," Richardson said. Those days will be coming to a close as the special plane that hauls people, goods and even animals on the same flight is taken out of service in a state with few roads. Alaska Airlines is retiring its last four combi planes, special Boeing 737-400s designed to carry cargo in the middle of the plane and 72 passengers in the rear, company vice president Marilyn Romano told The Associated Press ahead of this week's unveiling of the first of three new cargo planes for the state. "They've been our workhorses," said Jason Berry, manager of the company's cargo division. The new cargo planes are a dedicated fleet of three 737-700s, and they are the first ever to be converted from passenger jet to cargo planes. Passengers will now fly separately in 737-700s. Alaska Airlines is the only major airline in the U.S. that had combi planes, which were designed for the special challenges of the nation's largest state. A postage stamp placed in the middle of an average sheet of paper represents the area a person can reach in Alaska by coast line, river, road or railroad. "If you want to see or do business in any of the rest of that sheet of paper, you only have two choices: You can fly an hour or walk a week," said Mark Ransom with the Alaska Aviation Museum in Anchorage. The combi planes made sense to deliver people and goods to remote hub communities in Alaska in the most cost-efficient manner. The planes can carry up to four large cargo containers — weighing anywhere from 12,000 to 14,000 pounds — in the middle of the plane. Passengers fill the rear of the plane, and they get on board by using stairs like the pre-jetway days. "It's bittersweet," Romano said of the planes' retirement, especially for those who understand what they have meant to the people of Alaska. The planes usually fly to communities like Nome on the Bering Sea coast, Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) on the northern Arctic Ocean coast or Deadhorse, the supply town for the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, where there might not be enough cargo for a full planeload or enough passengers to fill a jet. From those locations, smaller airplanes usually deliver the cargo and passengers to dozens of nearby villages. The combi planes also make famous milk runs through southeast Alaska, leaving Anchorage and stopping about every 45 minutes to deliver goods — including milk — to little communities before heading on to Seattle, where the airline is headquartered. It's not just milk that gets delivered. In other parts of the United States, cargo planes deliver durable goods to businesses to make commerce run, said Berry, the cargo division manager. "In Alaska, we are carrying their milk, the groceries, the fruit, the vegetables, the pharmaceuticals, the drugs, for these people, for these communities," he said. And animals. "Because of where we are and where we live, we have the opportunity to help move a lot of unique things, and a lot of them are living," said Romano, the airline vice president. That could include shipping an injured eagle to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka for rehabilitation or giving a lift back to Anchorage for scores of exhausted sled dogs that had just finished the nearly 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome. The last combi flight is scheduled for Oct. 18, which is also the Alaska Day state holiday. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the formal transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States. The final flight will deliver the combi plane to Seattle from Juneau.

Premera cuts rates further for 2018

Alaskans buying health insurance on the individual market will see a decrease of 26.5 percent in rates next year, the sole insurer in the state announced Tuesday. Alaskans had been paying some of the highest premiums in the nation. Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield attributed the decrease to a significant reduction in the use of medical services and the state’s establishment of a program to address high claims separately, called reinsurance. Premera’s announcement “shows that my team’s out-of-the box thinking in creating the Alaska Reinsurance Program — approved by the Legislature — has paid off,” Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said in an email statement. “It also supports a need for Congress to fully examine the impacts of any changes to the Affordable Care Act, which enabled the creation of this program,” said Walker, an independent who favors a bipartisan approach to healthcare overhaul. The decrease could mean nearly $200 a month more in the pockets of Alaskans who buy on the individual market. For example, a 40-year-old nonsmoker living in Anchorage on the company’s lowest level plan with a deductible of $5,250 would see insurance rates drop from $703 a month this year to $526 a month next year, Premera spokeswoman Melanie Coon said. “We think it is showing that our market is becoming somewhat stable,” said Lori Wing-Heier, director of the Alaska Division of Insurance. “We’re hopeful it will attract another insurer or two back into Alaska,” she added. The president of Premera’s Anchorage office said it was too soon to assume the lower rates are the start of a trend. “However, we believe the state’s reinsurance program without question has contributed to a more stable and affordable individual health insurance market,” Jim Grazko said in a statement. It’s the first time the average rate has decreased under the current federal health care law in Alaska, where high health care and premium costs have been an ongoing concern. Rate increases had previously been as high as 40 percent, but stabilized a bit in 2017, which saw a 7 percent increase. There is a chance next year’s rate could still change. Premera said the current decrease assumes federal cost-sharing reductions will remain in place. They are included in the current bill being considered to replace President Barack Obama’s health care bill, but the Trump administration doesn’t support them, Wing-Heier said. If those subsidies were to be stripped out, the decrease would be closer to 22 percent. From the Alaska Journal: Premera first released its 2018 rates in August assuming the CSR payments would not continue. The reinsurance program was initially funded by the state for 2017 with $55 million in fees collected from insurance policies. A Section 1332 “innovation waiver” under the Affordable Care Act granted to Alaska will have the federal government paying about 80 percent of the cost, or $49 million, with the state kicking in $11 million for 2018.

Tillerson: US won’t rush climate change policies

FAIRBANKS (AP) — Arctic nations have renewed calls for the world to address climate warming, but U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the United States will not rush to make a decision on its policies. Tillerson spoke Thursday in Fairbanks at a meeting of the Arctic Council, an advisory group made up of the eight Arctic nations and indigenous groups. The council adopted a nine-page “Fairbanks Declaration 2017,” which noted that the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average. The document noted the importance of reducing soot and methane emissions and said climate change is the most serious threat to Arctic biodiversity. Tillerson signed the document. But in opening remarks, he cautioned that the United States is reviewing several important policies, including how the Trump administration will approach the issue of climate change. “We are appreciative that each of you has an important point of view, and you should know that we are taking the time to understand your concerns,” Tillerson told other representatives on the council. “We’re not going to rush to make a decision. We’re going to work to make the right decision for the United States.” The Arctic Council, he said, will continue to be an important platform as the Trump administration deliberates. Trump has said little about Arctic policy, but he has taken steps to put U.S. Arctic Ocean waters back in play for petroleum drilling. The Arctic Council’s goals are sustainable development and environmental protection of the Arctic. The council does not make policy or allocate resources, and its decisions must be unanimous. The United States, an Arctic country because of the state of Alaska, is joined on the council by Canada, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom said she walked away from a private conversation with Tillerson hopeful of the U.S.’ intent in the region. “He said, well, you know, we ought to first establish our climate policy and then decide on the Paris Agreement and how it relates,” Wallstrom told The Associated Press. “And I think that sounds reasonable to do so.” The worst-case scenario feared by some would be that Tillerson used this gathering to announce the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. “Then that did not happen, and I think that bodes well for the future,” Wallstrom said. “I believe that we will see a continued American engagement and commitment to the Arctic.” The United States chaired the council for the last two years. The U.S. highlighted three areas during its two-year chairmanship — improved living conditions and economies for those living in the Arctic, stewardship of the Arctic Ocean and climate change. David Balton, a deputy assistant secretary of State, said other accomplishments included an agreement for scientific cooperation among Arctic nations, an assessment of improvements needed for better telecommunications, and implementation of a database of ships passing through the Arctic. Tillerson at the close of the meeting turned the gavel to Timo Soini, minister of foreign affairs for Finland, which will take over chairmanship until 2019. Soini said Arctic resources and transportation routes may attract interest. “We should make sure that all human activity is sustainable, increasing opportunities to benefit the people who already live in the Arctic region, and certainly also the indigenous communities,” he said. Two broad frameworks, Soini said, should be taken into account in all Arctic Council activities: Climate change, especially the Paris Climate Agreement, and sustainable development goals that the United Nations adopted two years ago. Tillerson arrived late Wednesday afternoon in Fairbanks. Protesters gathered in a city park nearby to denounce the presence of Tillerson, who was president of Exxon Mobil Corp. “My message for Rex Tillerson is: Alaska shouldn’t be for sale for what’s in our earth,” said Hannah Hill, 36, who works at a Fairbanks soup kitchen. “This place is beautiful, and this place is delicate, and what already is happening in the Arctic will affect the rest of the Earth. And that is science.” Pat Lambert, a retired University of Alaska math professor, attended the rally because he believes climate change is a serious problem. He suggested Tillerson “should get away from his cronies in the oil business and start listening to the people of Alaska, for instance, and the people of the world who are so interested in these issues.” After the rally, the protesters marched behind a sign reading, “Welcome to the frontline of climate change,” to the building where the Arctic Council welcoming celebration was being held.

Giant cruise ship makes historic trip in melting Arctic

The giant luxury cruise liner was anchored just off Nome, too hulking to use the Bering Sea community’s docks on its inaugural visit. Instead, its more than 900 passengers piled into small transport boats and motored to shore, where they snapped photos of wild musk oxen, lifted glasses in the town’s colorful bars and nibbled blueberry pie while admiring Alaska Native dancers at Nome’s summer celebration. The Crystal Serenity’s visit to Alaska’s western coast is historic. At nearly three football fields long and 13 stories tall, the cruise ship is the largest ever to traverse the Northwest Passage, where its well-heeled guests glimpsed polar bears, kayaked along Canada’s north shore, landed on pristine beaches and hiked where few have stepped. Some remote villages along the way are seeing dollar signs, while environmentalists are seeing doom. They say the voyage represents global warming and man’s destruction of the Earth. The terrible irony with the Crystal Serenity’s voyage is that it’s taking place only because of climate change and the melting Arctic, said Michael Byers, a professor in the political science department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The Northwest Passage, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, has long been choked off by ice. But melting brought on by climate change is allowing passengers to cruise up the Bering Strait and then head east toward Greenland over the Arctic Ocean before docking next week in New York City. “And yet, by actually taking advantage of climate change, it’s contributing to the problem because the ship has a very large carbon footprint of its own,” Byers said. The cruise ship left Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula, Aug. 16 with about 900 guests and 600 crewmembers on board. During its monthlong journey to New York, it will visit towns and villages in western and northern Alaska, Canada, Greenland and the eastern seaboard. Smaller cruise ships, those that hold about 200 people, routinely make a port call in Nome and continue through the passage, but this ship is different. “This is the game changer,” Nome Mayor Richard Beneville said. “This is the one that’s on everyone’s lips.” Nome spared nothing to make sure tourists off the high-end cruise liner — tickets cost more than $20,000 per person, with a penthouse starting at about six times that — felt at home. The guests came to town in waves so they didn’t overwhelm the available services in Nome, population about 3,800. They arrived at the small harbor dock and loaded into vans or school buses for their adventures, which included getting a gander at a herd of wild musk oxen that had taken up residence just outside town. Other activities arranged for the cruise ship passengers were hiking and birding tours and helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft flights. Organizers even rescheduled the annual Blueberry Festival so visitors could enjoy a $5 piece of pie while watching traditional Eskimo dancers or browsing tables of seal skin gloves and wallets made by Alaska Native artists. The event took place a block from where the world’s most famous sled-dog race, the Iditarod, ends every March. “Being at this festival here, the indigenous families that are here, I mean they are so proud of what they have, their handcrafts, their dancing, their music. They just love it, even with the hardships they have to endure, the prices they have to endure,” said Floridian Bob Lentz, who was traveling with his wife, Linda. Charlie and Joan Davis of San Francisco signed up for the cruise within the first hour it was offered three years ago. “We’ve been around the world many times, and this is someplace we’ve never been to, that’s somewhat unknown,” Charlie Davis said. “You know, just an adventure.” They weren’t alone in wanting to be part of the historic cruise. “This is the longest single cruise we have ever made, and it is the most expensive cruise we’ve ever made because it’s many days, and it’s very expensive to operate up here,” said the ship’s captain, Birger Vorland. “And it’s the one that sold out the fastest; 48 hours, it was basically gone.” This cruise was three years in the making, and just about everything is unique to the trip, said John Stoll, a Crystal vice president who organized it. The Serenity was fitted with special equipment to operate in the Arctic, including an ice navigation satellite system. Its operators even chartered cargo flights to northern communities to gather fresh perishables for the vessel’s five-star restaurants. “The planning and the logistics that has gone into this ship has been nothing short of amazing,” Stoll said. The cruise company is planning another Alaska-to-New York City voyage next August, catering to travelers like the Lentzes. “We’re going off on a wildlife adventure right now, and that, to me, is what it’s all about in our twilight years — kind of experiencing things before crazy humans destroy it,” Bob Lentz said.
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