UNALASKA — After four years in storage, the hovercraft that shuttled to and from Akun Island has been sold to a buyer in Kazakhstan and replaced by helicopters for the ride to the new airport.
Now, the Aleutians East Borough wants federal funding for the helicopter service to end a unique situation where the subsidies terminate short of the final destination in the federal Essential Air Service program.
No doubt about it, Alaska is unique and so is the way the Essential Air Service operates subsidized passenger service in the state, especially because it’s the only state in the nation where the program ends one island short of the final destination, in Akutan, leaving a local government stuck with a helicopter bill.
That’s according to the program’s top administrator Joel Szabat, the deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Aviation and International Affairs.
Szabat, a career federal administrator, repeatedly remarked on Alaska’s unique transportation situations, compared to the Lower 48 where state transportation departments plow snow off roads and not airport runways.
Szabat visited Unalaska on his way to his program’s most unique destination, Akutan, where federal funding ends six miles across the water from the six-year-old airport on Akun, where a hovercraft formerly completed the trip.
That spendy machine was finally sold earlier this year to a Kazakhstan company, Circle Maritime Invest, after about four years of indoor storage in a hanger in Akutan.
Now, the Aleutians East Borough wants the federal government to step up to the plate and fulfill its responsibilities to an isolated community with unique circumstances, where it was too expensive to carve a runway out of the side of a mountain.
So instead the state built the first airport on land across the bay on the smaller, but more importantly flatter, island of Akun in 2012.
The project was not inexpensive, but was within the budget of about $50 million on the island that’s uninhabited except for cows and horses and a borough-operated hotel for weathered-in passengers originally built for the construction workers building the airport.
Szabat couldn’t commit either way to a helicopter subsidy, saying it’s neither allowed nor forbidden by federal law, but repeatedly remarked on Akutan’s unique place in the EAS program, because it doesn’t get passengers where they’re going, and instead deposits them on another island, with the borough providing the subsidies for the helicopter ride from Maritime Helicopters at substantially less cost than the hovercraft but still not cheap.
The EAS program currently subsidizes the airplane ride to Akun from Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, about 40 miles away, via Grant Aviation.
The hovercraft was finally sold in February, for $4.4 million, to Circle Maritime Invest, in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan according to Aleutians East Borough Manager Anne Bailey.
In May, the borough assembly decided to spend hovercraft sales proceeds on transportation expenses, including $2.5 million for the Akutan-Akun link, $1.3 million for the King Cove Access Project, and expenses involved in the sale of the watercraft.
The hovercraft was originally used for a few years in King Cove for travel to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay, as an alternative to the controversial road proposed through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge opposed by environmental groups.
The hovercraft, named Suna X, was purchased with $9 million in federal funds before eventually relocating to Akutan where it rode above the water on an aircushion, before the borough decided it was too expensive and frequently unable to operate because of rough weather.
In Kazakhstan, hovercrafts shuttle between shore and oil rigs in the Caspian Sea, and one Alaskan company, Cruz Marine, nearly bought the Suna X for North Slope oil field support, but backed out when oil prices collapsed four years ago, according to former borough manager Rick Gifford.
The hovercraft was replaced with another “extremely expensive” way of getting from the airport at Akun to the main island and village of Akutan, Bailey said. Akutan is also the site of a Trident Seafoods plant with around 1,000 workers.
Helicopter service costs $1.7 million a year, with only $400,000 from ticket sales at $100 for a one-way flight. The borough pays the balance of $1.3 million, Bailey said. The borough is now in the early stages of planning a small boat harbor and breakwater at Akun, she said.
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan told borough officials at an assembly meeting this year that he strongly supports federal funding for the proposed Akun harbor project.
Troy LaRue, a top administrator of the Alaska Department of Transportation from Anchorage, accompanied Szabat in Unalaska, and said a water link to Akun may help the airport “maximize” its economic potential, if Trident Seafoods can get seafood onto aircraft economically, which was feasible with a hovercraft, but is too expensive to ship fish even a short distance with a four-passenger helicopter.
LaRue also said that Akutan is looking at building homes on Akun, within city limits.
Another way Alaska is unique in the EAS program is with airports operated by the state government, unlike Lower 48 states where roads and highways, but not aviation, keeps state transportation departments busy, Szabat said.
Szabat praised the Alaska DOT for keeping the feds informed of airports that shouldn’t be on list of EAS-eligible communities, and were removed this year. Szabat said holding down costs is a top priority, and in 2011 the program was limited to existing communities
LaRue said those three were Funter Bay and Chatham, both in Southeast, each with no more than two residents, and Aleknagik, near Dillingham, where the airport hasn’t been used for airline service since a bridge was built across the Wood River.
Yet now another isolated rural community wants to join the program.
Aleutians East Borough Assembly Advisory Member Justine Gunderson of Nelson Lagoon wants her community added to the EAS list, although borough staff said it would take an act of Congress for the Alaska Peninsula village to qualify.
Szabat said Unalaska doesn’t get at EAS funds because it doesn’t need them, as commercial airlines operate profitably because of the large volume of passengers due to the seafood industry’s large presence.
Former Unalaska city councilor, ex-bookstore owner, and retired city employee Abi Woodbridge protested spending taxpayer dollars on aviation improvements benefiting the little village of Akutan and one seafood company, ridiculing the millions spent building the Akun airport as a “boondoggle,” she told Szabat at the October meeting at Unalaska City Hall.
She said she believed most Unalaskans shared her view that the Akun project was wasteful. Prior to the airport at Akun, passengers from Anchorage flights were flown to and from Unalaska directly to Akutan on Peninsula Airway’s amphibious antique Grumman Goose which landed on the water in front of the village. Pen Air eventually sold the Goose, citing the high cost of maintaining the plane built in the 1940s.
LaRue said that since the Akun airport opened, more people are arriving in Akutan by air, and fewer on Trident’s fishing vessels from Unalaska. While the helicopter is presently the only way to the airport, some Akutan residents would rather avoid the flying machine altogether, and instead wait for seasonal arrivals of the state ferry Tustemena for travel to Unalaska and connecting flights to Anchorage.
Szabat said he was touring Alaskan communities at the request of Sullivan. Szabat was formerly the executive director of the federal Maritime Administration, and said his previous aviation experience was limited to rebuilding airports in war-torn Iraq.
Presidents always try to kill the EAS program, which serves 160 communities, a third of them in Alaska, Szabat said, but Congress always refuses to go along, and saves the $300 million annual federal Essential Air Service subsidy program that provides passenger service to communities where it’s not otherwise affordable.
Half the funding is from special taxes on airlines, and the other $150 million comes directly from the federal budget, he said.
Jim Paulin can be reached at [email protected]