Safety, seafood industry driving airport improvements

Small towns from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to the far-flung Aleutian Islands are some of the trickiest areas to get to and by aircraft is often the only means to do so. Improving access, safety and economic benefits are driving renovations moving forward in several such places this year.

Akutan represents the biggest example. The tiny city has no paved airport. Passengers currently get in or out by way of the amphibious aircraft the Grumman Goose. Construction is under way for a 4,500-foot paved runway, which Project Manager Sean Holland said will open up the tiny town to more advantages.

Holland said the $56 million is easily the biggest transportation infrastructure project Akutan has had. It’s expected to be completed by Sept. 1. The contractor is Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. of Anchorage.

The Grumman Goose’s disadvantage comes in its size. The craft only carries seven passengers plus freight. It is also more than 65 years old, which Holland said is cause for a replacement.

The new paved airport will be serviced by a Navajo aircraft operated by PenAir, which also operates the Grumman Goose. This is a slightly bigger plane with nine-passenger capacity. Holland said the real advantage, however, is long-term possibilities for flights to Anchorage instead of Unalaska. The new airport could be used to service PenAir’s bigger Saab 340 aircraft to Anchorage. Holland said this aircraft will be much more reliable and efficient.

RMA Consulting is handling the project. Senior Program Manager Ray Mann said this airport has been a long time in the making and that a big advantage is in the economic benefits, especially with future Anchorage connections.

Akutan is home to the largest seafood processing plant in the North America, owned by Trident Seafoods, and large influxes of fishermen, processing workers and other crews will be able to rotate more frequently and transport product more efficiently.

“We believe this will be a significant pickup for economic activity for the next five to 10 years,” he said. “It’s reasonable transportation and economic development coming together.”

Plans are also moving forward with a master airport plan in Cold Bay to address several renovations needs, including runway length, pavement issues, safety zones, visibility zones and airport land. Cost estimates for the short-term plan are around $37 million.

This project is still in early development, as the public comment period has just ended. Administrators are pushing for the renovations as a way to boost economic activity beyond airport revenues.

Ernie Weiss, the natural resources director of Aleutians East Borough, said there has been a big push for an apron to the new Aleutians East Borough terminal building. A major part of this effort is to develop a direct route from Cold Bay to Chinese markets.

He said the ability to fly direct would enable more live crab and seafood transports with less dead loss. Flights currently go through Anchorage, which means an extra 1,400 miles in the air plus downtime at the airport.

“We don’t want to be in direct competition in Anchorage but make a brand new market,” Weiss said.

Crab harvesters and other fisheries have supported this effort.

The Legislature just passed $2 million for the Cold Bay airport apron and taxiway construction in the capital budget. The budget still awaits the governor’s signature. Weiss said there is enough infrastructure present to get started as soon as funding and regulatory issues come through.

“In general, we’d like to get moving on this project right away,” he said.

Weiss said there will be a thorough presentation of the effort at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute forum in June.

Unalaska, home to the nation’s perennial leader in seafood landings, is gearing up for its own airport renovations. Bids will go out this year for runway renovations, airfield lighting, safety area work, taxiway and apron resurfacing, drainage improvements and relocating a segment of Ballyhoo Road. Engineering estimates put the project between $30 million and $40 million. Most of the substantial work is expected to be done by October 2013.

11/08/2016 - 11:29am