Unalaskans hope new regional airline means better local air service

A turbo prop on the ground at the airport in Unalaska, with Mount Ballyhoo in the background.
Aleutian Airways’ inaugural flight marked the first commercial flight on a Saab 2000 to Unalaska since 2019. (Photo by Maggie Nelson/KUCB)

New regional airline Aleutian Airways touched down at Unalaska’s Tom Madsen Airport on Nov. 16., and with it arrived the hope of more stable and affordable air service to the remote Aleutian Island.

The roughly 15 passengers on board Aleutian Airways’ inaugural flight from Anchorage were greeted by a few dozen cheering Unalaskans, including local officials from the city and school district.

“It’s nice to see change,” said local Karley Parker. “And it’s a very welcome change. I’m glad that we have options. It’s much needed here in Unalaska, for competition and rates and just getting people off the island.”

Parker was one of the passengers on the fully booked return flight back to Anchorage. She’s lived in Unalaska most of her life and said she’s excited to have airfare options in general, but also to be able to catch a shorter flight.

The new regional carrier, which is operated by Sterling Airways, flies to Unalaska Mondays through Fridays on its Saab 2000 aircraft, which is a high-speed turboprop plane that holds around 50 passengers.

Previously, Ravn Alaska was the only airline offering regularly scheduled flights between Unalaska and Anchorage. Ravn flies smaller and slightly slower DeHavilland Dash 8 planes, which were used in place of the Saab after the same kind of aircraft — a Saab 2000 — crashed at the end of the runway during a commercial PenAir flight, killing one passenger in 2019.

Aleutian Airways’ Wednesday flight was the first time since that crash that a Saab 2000 had flown commercially to the island. A National Transportation and Safety Board investigation revealed that bad wiring, lax oversight and poor judgment were all factors in the fatal crash, which sparked a hailstorm of unreliable and expensive air service to and from the island.

Previously, Alaska Airlines flew jets from the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. But in 2004, the mainline carrier pulled its fleet from Unalaska due to weather cancellations and safety concerns over the island’s short, 4,500 foot runway. PenAir continued to service the island under an agreement with Alaska Airlines until the 2019 crash. But since Alaska Airlines stopped flying to Unalaska, there has been just one airline providing regularly scheduled service at any one time. And at certain points following the crash, Unalaska has been left without any commercial flights.

Unalaska, which is about 800 air miles from Anchorage and home to the nation’s largest fishing port by volume, has a year-round population of about 4,500 residents. But during peak fishing seasons, that number doubles. The region, while remote, is an industrial hub for the fishing industry and sees significant foot traffic from both locals coming and going for work and vacation, as well as the thousands of industry workers arriving for seasonal employment.

Flights on the new airline will cost about the same as other options. A one-way ticket off the island on Aleutian Airways and Ravn costs a minimum of about $650 but is usually closer to $750. And if you want a refundable ticket, it’ll be nearly $950, which is more than a seat on the average charter. Those skyrocketing airfare costs have local officials worrying about the future of the remote but vital fishing town.

But with Aleutian Airways’ entrance onto the regional market, some Unalaskans hope there is improvement on the horizon. For Denise Rankin, president of the Ounalashka Corporation, it’s a breath of fresh air to see the new regional airline’s puffin logo hanging above Unalaska’s check-in counter.

She said she came to the inaugural landing to show support for the new airline and say hello to some of the folks flying in.

“I think it brings some hope to community members that eventually the prices might come down to where they can travel more and bring some stability back. I hope,” Rankin said.

Rankin grew up on the island and until recently, she said she hadn’t left in about four years.

“Having a larger flight that can carry your bags with you is really important,” she said. “And I’m hoping that it will bring down some of the flight prices. But airfare was one of the main reasons we weren’t traveling. It was really expensive.”

Unalaska’s former Mayor and a contractor for the new carrier, Frank Kelty, was one of the first folks to deboard the plane and walk into the Tom Madsen Airport, as Rankin and dozens of others greeted them.

“We’re going to have dependable fast service to Unalaska,” Kelty said. “This morning, we made it in two hours flat, left at 7:30 and got here at 9:30. We’re going to do our best to provide a great service and we look forward to working with the community.”

He was joined by Aleutian Airways CEO Wayne Heller, who shared in the excitement about the inaugural flight.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Heller said. “I’m grinning from ear to ear.”

But the overall feeling of enthusiasm and hope that many felt about the flight doesn’t ensure lower airfare costs. Currently, Aleutian Airways’ prices are nearly identical to what Ravn Alaska offers. And Heller said he’s not sure what prices will look like going forward.

“Everything has gotten more expensive in the last couple of years,” Heller said. “Planes, employees, fuel — a myriad of different things that go into running an airline are a lot more costly than they once were. There’s a level that you have to get to in order to be able to provide service. So a lot will depend on what our load factors are in and out of Dutch Harbor. And we’ll adjust from there.”

As for the question that is likely on many local’s minds: will the new airline allow travelers to use their Alaska Airlines miles to buy Aleutian Airways flights? Heller said maybe… eventually.

It’s something on our long term plans,” he said.

The company plans to increase service and begin offering weekend flights starting Dec. 26 to help accommodate the influx of industry workers coming to the island for the upcoming winter fishing season.

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