A day trip to Yakutat turned into a three-night extended stay for one Juneau resident because of a weather station malfunction preventing planes from taking off. This is a recurring problem for the community that, for most of the year, is only connected through air travel.
Juneau resident Norton Gregory was going to Yakutat on a day trip for work on Dec. 1. The Alaska Airlines jet landed with him aboard. But when the jet took off later, only crew members were on board because a piece of equipment wasn’t working, and airlines can’t take off in Yakutat with passengers on the plane without it.
Federal Aviation Administration regulations require airlines to have information like wind speed, direction, temperature and cloud coverage in order to take off or land.
Airlines can get this information from human weather observers or automated weather systems. Yakutat once had a weather observer but hasn’t had one in a long time. So airlines flying into the community have to rely on the automated weather system called an Automated Surface Observing System, or ASOS.
Because of FAA regulation, the airline can’t take off without it — even if the weather looks good.
That left Gregory stranded in the remote community known — among other things — for its surfing.
“You know, I was thinking that I could probably go get a surfboard from Icy Waves Surf Shop and give that a go,” he said. “Yeah, I think you’re kind of, you’re at their will, you’re at the will of the airlines when something like this happens.”
The only other option for Gregory to get home besides waiting for ASOS to be fixed was to charter a flight with Alaska Seaplanes. And it comes with a hefty price tag; it’s about $5,000 for the charter from Juneau to Yakutat and back.
It wasn’t a completely negative experience for Gregory. During his three extra days, he got to see some friends he hasn’t seen in a while, meet the village dogs and see a Yakutat winter sunrise.
“You know, it’s a beautiful place to be stranded,” he said.
Gregory said he was lucky he didn’t have pressing commitments but said others may have needed to make flight connections or get to doctor’s appointments in other communities.
“It’s just life in the village I think for these folks, I think they might be a little more accustomed to it than I. But, you know, I don’t think it’s something that we should be accustomed to, I think that these folks deserve regular air service,” he said.
The town’s mayor, Cindy Bremner, said this has been a problem for more than two years now, but this was the longest outage Yakutat has had. It created a lot of problems for residents trying to travel outside of the community.
People were stranded in Anchorage, Juneau and Seattle. With an extra week added on to their travel, expenses can rise quickly.
And it isn’t just a problem about residents wanting to be able to travel in and out of the community.
“We rely on the airline for everything from our groceries to go and see the doctor to, unfortunately during this last outage, we had a couple of deaths in our community and that’s also how they get transported to the medical examiner’s office and that was unable to happen for a few days,” Bremner said.
One resident ended up calling a charter for the deceased because they weren’t sure if the problem would be fixed in time. When the same problem happened in October, some residents were traveling to a funeral. They — and the deceased person — were stuck in Anchorage until ASOS was fixed.
Bremner wants to find a permanent solution to this problem because the community relies on air travel for almost everything. They can’t use a ferry as a backup option.
“We don’t get regular ferry service in the winter and fairly sporadic even in the summer,” Bremner said. “So it doesn’t really matter whether it’s summer or winter, we still need this fixed so we can get our airline in here daily.”
Chartering a plane is expensive and a lot of people can’t afford it. But in emergencies, sometimes people have to shoulder that cost.
“There was a gentleman who had to get out for his dialysis, and that’s not something you can just put off if you want to live,” she said.
Bremner hopes that with the community of Yakutat, Alaska Airlines and the National Weather Service working together, they can come up with a permanent solution.
Over the weekend, that weather-reporting equipment failed again, just days after it had been fixed. It caused another flight to be canceled. Though, by the evening of Dec. 11, Alaska Airlines flight trackers show that flights were able to land in the Yakutat airport again.