Grant Aviation begins service to Akutan airport

Residents of a remote community in Alaska's Aleutians once again have access to scheduled flights that fill a void left when an airliner suspended service there in late October.

Grant Aviation began its scheduled flights this week to and from the new airport for Akutan, a community whose population ranges from a few hundred to more than 1,000 during the seafood processing season.

The flights that began Wednesday between Akutan's first airport and Unalaska — known for Dutch Harbor, a major U.S. fishing port — are available daily except Sundays. A one-way ticket for the 35-mile trip is $148, and that doesn't cover another $100 ticket to carry passengers or freight on a hovercraft that travels between Akutan's airport and the community itself. That's almost $500 an Akutan resident can expect to pay to make the short trip in both directions.

The $75.5 million, state-owned airport, constructed primarily with federal funds, opened in September and is located on Akun Island, about six miles from the community, which is surrounded by mountainous terrain on another island. A hovercraft owned by the Aleutians East Borough links the islands.

Anchorage-based Grant had been providing charter service to the airport since PenAir stopped service after decades of delivering passengers, freight and mail directly to Akutan with an amphibious plane. Akutan Mayor Joe Bereskin said it was only a matter of time before the vintage Grumman Goose would be retired, and that was one of the reasons officials have long pushed for an airport.

PenAir had been using a seaplane ramp at Akutan but lost the space with the construction of a dock there to accommodate the hovercraft. PenAir tried to use a rocky beach, but that damaged the plane.

The Anchorage-based airliner announced in August that it wanted to stop service there as well as other small communities and focus instead on larger hubs. Bereskin said the Grumman Goose was less reliable than the hovercraft, anyway, in meeting scheduled flights in an area notorious for winds and high seas.

Bereskin said residents are relieved to have regular flights again, a big concern being mail delivery and medical problems as well as the cost of chartered flights.

"It was starting to get expensive to go with that option," Bereskin said.

As with PenAir, the 12 Grant Aviation flights scheduled weekly for Akutan are partly funded through the federal Essential Air Service program, which since 1978 has subsidized flights to more than 100 U.S. cities, including dozens of remote Alaska communities.

Under the EAS contract issued Nov. 16 by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Grant will receive $724,025 for the period ending May 31, then another $579,220 for the subsequent period ending Sept. 30, 2014.

The EAS order notes concerns by the U.S. Postal Service about having to pay additional costs to transport mail by hovercraft and that agency officials were never consulted in the construction of the airport.

"Thus, we do not understand how the bill for difficulties arising out of decisions made or actions taken during that process could properly be assigned to the Postal Service," a Postal Service official states in a letter to the DOT.

Grant's operations director, Austin Engebretson, said delivery of the mail is now part of the airliner's service to Akutan.

Loose ends are still being worked out with Grant, according to borough administrator Rick Gifford. For example, he said he hopes a way is found to merge the flight and hovercraft prices for passengers.

"But we're operating, weather depending," Engebretson said. "I think this is some good news."


11/30/2012 - 7:12am