Yute name flies again in service to North Slope

PHOTO/Rob Stapleton/AJOC
Yute Air, which calls itself "The Wings of the People," has risen from the dust of a cloudy reputation o serve a different sector of Alaska, and as such, is positioned to take advantage of a North Slope oil field construction boom.

"We are doing business as Yute Air in name only. Everything else about the company has changed," said Skip Nelson, vice president and chief operating officer of Yute Air-Flight Alaska Inc.

According to Nelson, the company is using the Yute name but the company is incorporated as Flight Alaska Inc., a division of Flight International Group Inc.

"This is great news that Yute is back," said former Yute vice president of marketing, Ron Pye. "This is a very conservative but sound move for an Alaska-based airline. It sounds like they are in the perfect position to increase their market share on the North Slope."

Pye left Yute in early 1998. He is currently vice president of marketing, sales and public relations for Chautauqua Airlines Inc., the fastest growing feeder or commuter airline in the United States according to an airline trade publication.

"Yute is a good name to trade with," added Nelson. "It is our goal to restore the name’s reputation and to rebuild a bigger, safer organization."

Yute’s reputation is due mainly to a 1999 Chapter 11, later changed to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing that found Flight International Group Inc. purchasing Yute’s FAA Part 135 certificate and filing for their U.S. Department of Transportation 401 status to carry U.S. mail.

Despite its financial woes, Yute maintained a safety record that stands today: It has not injured a passenger in the history of the company.

Yute was originally started as Bob Harris Flying Service in the mid-50s, serving the Bristol Bay region from Dillingham. In 1974 the name was changed to Yute, a derivative of Yuut, the Yupik word for "the people."

According to Nelson, parent company Flight International Group of Newport News, Va., purchased Yute in 1999 and downsized the company in April 2000.

As part of the new operation, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court gave it a test run for a few months, before slowly allowing the company to apply for other assets and certificates needed for the airline business.

Flight Alaska Inc. started its Alaska operation with nine employees and has now grown to 60 people: 39 are from the former Yute Air Inc.

Yute also has new challenges in its chosen area of operations.

"Clearly, this is the most challenging and harsh environment that any air carrier can experience," Nelson said. "Blowing snow, cold temperatures and a lack of facilities, and the requirements of the companies, makes operations more difficult."

He said another challenge is the distance from Yute’s Anchorage base at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to Deadhorse, where it operates a contract for service for Phillips Alaska Inc.

"Our operations on the Slope are like the distance from Phoenix to Chicago. That’s a long way for any carrier from their home base," Nelson said.

But despite the challenges, Yute, which operates two Casa 212s, and a twin engine Piper Navajo, transports workers to and from Deadhorse to the Kuparuk and Alpine oil fields. The company also makes flights to Nuiqsut for villagers who work on the North Slope.

The company’s North Slope operations are next to Carlile Transportation and about 200 yards from the Prudhoe Bay Hotel at Deadhorse.

"Carlile is turning our loads up there. We have a real good relationship with them," said Nelson. "In fact, on the whole, the group up there has an unusual air of cooperation among all the contractors on the Slope."

Yute recently invested in a hangar for its aircraft by placing a 7,200-square-foot Alaska Coverall Corp.-built hanger with heat at the Deadhorse Airport ramp.

Nelson is impressed with the conditions on the Slope, both by logistics and the general environmental operation.

"Phillips is really doing it right. They are a quality organization," Nelson offered. "Alpine is like the oil rig of the future. Everyone is absolutely scrupulous in maintenance, environmental and ecological issues. The conditions up there are like a hospital operating room -- if you even spill a drop of oil, they shoot your hands off," Nelson said, laughing.

Nelson said not everyone understands that.

"We flew up to Deadhorse for business and overheard some young environmentalist who upon looking out the aircraft window, said, ’It’s just like the oilmen to cut down all of the trees on the North Slope.’ We laughed, but that illustrates a misconception about the industry on the Slope."

Although Yute’s executive is impressed with the conditions, more impressive to him is the professionalism of the work force and the dedication of the workers, which triggers more work.

"The construction of Alpine and DS1 caused a dramatic increase in the operations tempo," Nelson said. "Now with DS2 more construction and more traffic is inevitable." DS1 and DS2 are oil rigs.

"We feel that with our relationship with Air Cargo Express, Carlile and others, that we are in a perfect position to what may be a new mini-boom on the Slope," Nelson added.

But what of the other statewide markets and Yute’s long range plans?

"We feel that there is a market for every season, but we will not enter into service until a market demands it," Nelson said.

Are there any other areas that Yute is eyeing for passenger service?

"We will not offer passenger service with any piston aircraft until we have the fleet we need with turboprops. But the Anchorage-Homer/Kenai dynamics are interesting."

Nelson a former Navy pilot who taught at Top Gun schools, says that the company is operating under a strict plan: "Safety first and financial reward will come later."

01/27/2001 - 8:00pm