Reeve's departure hampers Alaska's ties with Russian Far East
When Reeve Aleutian Airways ended its scheduled flights between Anchorage and the Russian Far East late last year, Alaskans lost a regular, convenient link to the region.
In the past three years, other airlines have dropped the route, which Alaska business people frequent to build their ventures in areas like Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where oil development is under way.
However, Magadan-based Mavial recently announced plans to start serving the area this spring.
At a Feb. 13 roundtable discussion, trade officials said the loss of the link between Alaska and Russia will impede business between the countries. However, airline representatives say there is not enough passenger and cargo volume to efficiently operate the route.
The discussion was part of the Pacific Rim Construction Oil Mining Expo and Conference in Anchorage.
In late 1998 Alaska Airlines ended its service from Anchorage to Magadan, Khabarovsk, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Vladivostok. In December 1999 Aeroflot, too, discontinued routes between those cities.
"The absence of adequate transportation connections has a tremendous impact on economic ties," said Charlene Derry, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration Alaska Region’s Office of International Aviation. Derry also is the U.S. transportation representative for the U.S. West Coast Russian Far East Ad Hoc Working Group of Seattle.
"Busy executives do not have the time to spend a week to go there and come back," said Michael Allen, general director of the American Business Center in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.
Current travel, including connecting flights, between Anchorage and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is inconvenient, he said.
The departure of Reeve has forced Russian Far East passengers and freight forwarders to use a long and expensive route from Japan through Korea that ends up with a connection to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Korea-based Asiana Airlines.
Phil Bray, director of operations for Era Aviation Inc.’s fixed wing operations, said Alaskans may see a different type of service to the Russian Far East. A special designated flight might be the answer rather than regularly scheduled flights or regular charters, he said. Such a flight would be similar to oil companies’ dedicated North Slope shuttle, he said.
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk-based Allen said such a service would be too expensive for the small- and medium-size Alaska businesses who could participate in future development on Sakhalin Island.
In late December, Era commissioned an e-mail market survey concerning Era offering service to the Russian Far East.
According to the survey, 61 percent of business people Era polled started travel in Anchorage bound for the Russian Far East, while 39 percent began travel in Seattle, Bray said.
Bray, former chief pilot for Reeve who flew its Russian Far East routes, said Era is still considering operating a route to the region, perhaps as a special shuttle.
The perfect aircraft to fly between Alaska and the Russian Far East, probably something similar to Boeing’s 737-700 combination passenger and cargo plane, has not yet been built, he said. Such an aircraft would cost $30 million to purchase and $30,000 an hour to operate, Bray said.
One airline is adding a new route between Anchorage and the Russian Far East starting April 1.
Mavial or Magadan Airlines officials in mid-February announced plans to begin flying regular scheduled weekly flights between Magadan, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Anchorage. Connecting flights from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky can transport passengers to Khabarovsk via Khabarovsk Aviation or to Vladivostok aboard Vladivostok Aviation.
The flight from Anchorage will depart Sundays at 6:30 p.m. bound for Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky then Magadan.
Mavial officials decided to add the route since no other carriers were flying to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, said Mavial’s U.S. manager, Vladimir Melnik. Travel agents and U.S. companies asked the airline to consider serving the route, he said.
From Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and connecting flights to Khabarovsk, Alaskans can reach Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk via flights from Khabarovsk.
The airline already flies between Anchorage, Magadan and Khabarovsk, with the next flight departing March 14.
Most cargo between Alaska and its Russian neighbor -- 93 percent between 1997 and 2000 -- was loaded in Anchorage and bound for the Russian Far East, said Linda Close, marketing manager for Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Allen noted that Sakhalin Aviation may be interested in operating routes between Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Anchorage, although the airline has not formally applied for the route. The carrier is looking for an aircraft to serve such a route and also is considering a Honolulu route, a city which offers connections to Anchorage, he said.
Operating any route depends on the bottom line, and carriers could nix routes in favor of more profitable ones, said Greg Wolf, director of the state Division of International Trade and Market Development. Wolf noted his experience with travel companies that bought seats for Japanese tourists to ensure service. "Companies or organizations willing to guarantee seats would reduce the risk for carriers," he said.
State trade officials met with company representatives in mid-February to discuss possible service to the Russian Far East, said Jeff Berliner, Russian trade specialist with the state trade office. Some companies, like Reeve until it filed for bankruptcy, had profitable traffic flying the route, he said.