Unalaska declares emergency over suspended air service; city plans to charter flights for community

A National Transportation Safety Board investigator examines on Oct. 19 the Saab 2000 plane that rolled off the runway at Unalaska’s airport. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

Unalaska has declared a local emergency over the community’s lack of commercial air service.

The Unalaska City Council unanimously approved a declaration at a special meeting on Tuesday — almost two weeks after RavnAir Group suspended the island’s regular flights to and from Anchorage in the wake of a fatal plane crash.

Unalaska Mayor Vince Tutiakoff Sr. said the emergency order is a sort of message to the airline, which is only offering charter flights until it can certify a new aircraft for the route and restart commercial service.

“We’re saying it’s not enough,” said Tutiakoff.

A De Havilland Dash 8 airplane sits on the runway at Unalaska’s airport. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

Before Tuesday’s declaration, RavnAir President Dave Pflieger stood by the decision to delay commercial service, saying the regional airline wanted to make sure flights were conducted “in the safest manner possible.”

“We’re doing our best to get regularly scheduled commercial service going,” said Pflieger. “Unfortunately, it just takes some time for us to get ready to do that.”

With the declaration, the city is planning to take on the complicated and expensive chartering process so individual Unalaskans don’t have to. The order allows the city to charter as many as three flights per week — and to resell the seats to the many community members looking to travel for work, vacation, medical appointments and more.

Tutiakoff said the city’s goal is to get flights up and running next week — as long it can secure an emergency waiver from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Officials will be working toward that waiver for the remainder of this week, as well as checking charter pricing from Ravn and other carriers.

“We heard $27,000 a few days ago,” said Tutiakoff. “It depends on the size of the plane and a lot of different things. That’s hopefully what we’ll find out on Friday.”

That timeline would have community charters starting just as Ravn plans to resume regular service — about three weeks after the accident.

But Councilor Shari Coleman said the city needs to move forward as if the airline won’t be ready.

A crane lifts an airplane from a rocky drop near the runway.

An effort got underway Friday, Oct. 18., to move a PenAir plane that had gone off the runway at Unalaska’s airport. One passenger died as a result of the incident. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

“I’m not real confident in their date line,” said Coleman. “So even though this may seem like it’s taking forever, we have to keep putting one foot in front. If (the city’s role) is short-term, fabulous. But if it ends up being longer, at least we have a plan.”

Beyond enabling the city’s short-term plan for charters, Tutiakoff said declaring a local emergency will help councilors as they seek state and federal help for long-term projects to improve Unalaska’s aviation safety and reliability.

Specifically, he said they need to consider lengthening the airport’s runway so it can host larger planes.

“We’re hoping that this approval of the emergency declaration would also rattle the cages in Washington, D.C.,” said Tutiakoff. “Start looking at this community for what it is. We’re the largest fishing community (by port volume in the country) and here we’re sitting, being fed little planes, when we have 10,000 to 20,000 people coming in in about a month and a half.”

With the busy winter fishing season set to ramp up in late December, it’s unclear how Unalaska’s air service will look at that time — and how airlines will handle the influx of seasonal fishers and processors.

The City Council is planning to continue calling special meetings on aviation as the situation unfolds, including one session this Friday, Nov. 1.

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