Interior Dept. says it will release emergency funds to pay pilots

Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced in a Nov. 1 press release that Alaska pilots waiting on payment for work done with the U.S. Department of Interior can expect to see cash arriving soon.

“Alaskans have a very low threshold for red tape and bureaucracy out of Washington, D.C., and it is inexcusable that a number-crunching maze at the Interior Department has left our air carriers and pilots waiting for months to get paid what they are owed,” Murkowski said. “I’ve been urging the Interior Department for months to pay our small air carriers immediately and adjust their accounting procedures on their own time.”

The ranking Republican on the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, Murkowski said she was informed by department officials that emergency funds will be used to cover debts to the pilots and it will review accounting practices.

On Oct. 26, Sen. Mark Begich wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in an effort to get Alaska pilots paid.

The letter states: “Some aviation companies report being owed between $50,000 and $250,000. While that may not seem large by federal standards, it is enough to place a severe strain on hardworking small business owners who have provided exemplary service. Several also expressed no further interest in federal contracts due to the uncertainly and financial damage DOI has caused them. These are small businesses, not big corporations. They cannot carry debt for months until they get paid. Additionally, the number of aviation providers in rural Alaska is limited, and DOI does not have a multitude of options among carriers in many areas.”

Troy Cambier is owner and operator of Chena River Aviation in Fairbanks, specializing in “wildlife work,” which entails flying scientists or other technicians into the bush to conduct field research from radio tracking to herd surveys, he said.

While DOI contracts used to make up half of his business, Cambier said he can’t afford to work for the department any longer without being paid.

“Not having gotten paid for the work I do — I’ve drained all my savings just keeping my business going. I can’t afford to fly for them anymore,” he said.

Cambier was owed nearly $65,000 by DOI earlier this year. He recently received a payment in early October, bringing the total he is owed into the $50,000 range, he said.

An email he received, also on Oct. 26, from the department stated that pilots owed money would be sent invoices for the late payments so the process of resolving the issue could begin, Cambier said. After waiting roughly a week without further response, Cambier began making calls to multiple contacts throughout the department, with little success.

“It’s like beating your head against a wall,” he said.

When informed about the efforts in Washington to solve the delinquencies, Cambier said he was glad to hear something is being done, but he holds reserved optimism.

“At this point, I’m curious to see what constitutes an emergency. I guess maybe I’ll keep pushing (DOI) and just keep pestering them. I hate to do that but it’s to the point where I need to get paid,” he said. “It sounds like the implement is there to get it done if I can just find the right person to talk to.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/11/2016 - 8:05pm