New airline brings competition to Unalaska-Anchorage route

The runway at Unalaska’s airport, photographed from Mount Ballyhoo in 2017. (Berett Wilber/KUCB)

A new airline startup says it will soon be offering daily flights between Unalaska and Anchorage.

The new carrier, branded Aleutian Airways, is a partnership between Juneau-based Alaska Seaplanes, Florida-based Sterling Airways and two venture capital firms.

The group announced the new service Tuesday.

Kent Craford, co-owner of Alaska Seaplanes, is a senior executive at the new outfit. Starting this fall, he said, the company will begin flying Saab 2000 turboprops daily between the Aleutian hub and Alaska’s largest city.

“It’s such a tough nut to crack — Unalaska — because of the short runway, because of how remote it is, (its) distance to alternate airfields,” Craford said. “There’s a very, very unique key that unlocks this airport, and we’ve got it — the Saab 2000 is it.”

The PenAir Saab 2000 planes haven’t flown in Unalaska since RavnAir Group’s fatal plane crash in October 2019. The island has since been without regularly-scheduled, consistent nonstop commercial flights to Anchorage. The DeHavilland Dash 8-100 turboprops, which RavnAir flew on the route following the crash, often require a refueling stop.

A reboot of Ravn Alaska airline with different ownership began flying the Dash 8-100 series on the Unalaska-Anchorage route last November, after the former airline went bankrupt and Ravn Alaska acquired the company’s operating certificates.

The new Aleutian Airways partnership will add competition to the 800-mile route.

Alaska Seaplanes has been working for more than a year to enter the Aleutian market. Last spring, it lost a bid to acquire PenAir certificates and operations from the bankrupt RavnAir. But since then, Craford said, they’ve been able to dial in on the island’s needs for reliable and safe air service.

“We did our own analysis on our various aircraft options for Unalaska, and that independent, objective analysis determined that the Saab 2000 was simply the best platform to serve Unalaska,” he said.

Craford said he understands there’s baggage surrounding the Swedish Saab 2000 because of the crash that killed one person and left more than a dozen injured. But, he said, they’ll be sticking with former operator PenAir’s relatively strong safety record by enforcing high operational standards and employing former PenAir pilots.

“They required their pilots to have so many hours of flying into Dutch Harbor before they were allowed to be pilot in command,” Craford said. “They had very stringent risk assessments that were required for flying out to Dutch. And we’re going to be instituting a lot of the same policies with the same pilots who flew under those policies, so they know it firsthand. They know it well.”

He said the combination of Alaska Seaplanes’ experience serving rural Alaska, along with Sterling Airways’ experience operating larger equipment, will hopefully fill the gap in Aleutian air service.

Aleutian Airways plans to announce its schedule later this month. It has not yet announced fares.

The new airline will be a partnership between Alaska Seaplanes, Connecticut-based Wexford Capital, which wholly owns Sterling Airways, and Anchorage-based McKinley Private Investment.

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