PenAir nearly gone from south peninsula
With just one small airplane left, Peninsula Airways is almost completely out of the village air taxi business. But the King Cove wrestling team was in for a big surprise last month when that plane left for five days of maintenance. When they arrived in Cold Bay from the state championships in Anchorage, the last leg of the air journey was missing, according to Aleutians East Borough School Superintendent Tim Stathis.
They returned soon enough to King Cove, thanks to local parents who came over in a boat and brought the wrestlers and school principal home, Stathis said.
Peninsula Airways is in the process of turning village service over to Grant Aviation, but until the transition is completed, that leaves the southern Alaska Peninsula in a very frustrating "wishy washy situation," Stathis said.
The unexpected cancellation did more than just inconvenience the wrestling team and their parents. It also prevented a special education instructor from flying from Cold Bay to a village. The teacher had to fly back to Anchorage, and was unable to provide the student with the services required by an individual education plan, Stathis said.
Pen Air vice president Melissa Anderson said Cold Bay, King Cove, Nelson Lagoon and False Pass are serviced by a five-seat Piper Cherokee, the last of what was once a fleet of some 25 small planes that serviced communities throughout Southwest Alaska.
The Cherokee is required by Federal Aviation Administration regulations to have an inspection following 50 hours of flight time, and Pen Air can only do that in Anchorage. The project takes two to three days at the maintenance shop, and a day's flying time each way adds up to about five days, Anderson said.
In the past, the airline would bring in a different airplane to take the place of the one in the maintenance shop. But now there isn't any backup.
The airline has been selling off its village aircraft since June when it started its phased pull out from its three rural markets, first in the Bristol Bay area including Dillingham and Naknek, and then the Aleutians including Unalaska, Atka, Nikolski, and Akutan, and finally the southern Alaska Peninsula, she said.
Grant Aviation is expected to start weekend service between Cold Bay and King Cove on Friday, especially since the busy fishing A season is underway, with 10 to 60 passengers daily flying to the Peter Pan seafood plant in King Cove. That uses up a lot of hours, requiring more frequent trips to the shop for the maintenance required every 50 hours, she said.
Cold Bay , a rural hub community, is serviced directly from Anchorage in 30-seat Saab commuter planes, as are Dillingham, King Salmon, and Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. Pen Air will continue hub service in Alaska, even as the term "hub" acquires new meaning considering its newest market, based at Logan Airport in Boston, a city that bills itself as the "Hub of the Universe," with daily flights to Presque Isle, Maine, and Plattsburg, New York.
Pen Air's transition out of Cold Bay is reminiscent of Akutan, which is still having aviation-related problems, even though Grant is now flying scheduled service to the new airport on the nearby island of Akun.
The hovercraft is falling from favor, and the borough government is now considering a new, specially designed vessel that can more frequently make the seven-mile trip between the village and Akun, Stathis said.
Stathis said the big problem in Akutan involves the hovercraft linking Akun and Akutan, which can only operate in a "narrow" range of weather conditions, leaving teachers and other school staff stranded for days at a time in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.
Hovercraft-prohibitive weather occurred numerous times in November and December, and one consultant had to turn around and go home without ever getting to the Akutan school, Stathis said. The new airport opened in September, leading to the retirement of Pen Air's antique amphibious Gruman Goose which used to splash down in front of the village.
Jim Paulin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org