While Unalaska was granted $1,120,265 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — or CARES Act — for its airport last week, many questions remain about what the funding can be used for.
The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to offset impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CARES Act Airport Grant Program released $124.17 million to help 257 airports across the state. Of the amount granted to Alaska, approximately $33 million is for the two international airports, $49 million is for state-owned rural airports, and $41.7 million is for non-state-owned airports.
Unalaska's Tom Madsen Airport falls into the "state-owned rural airports" category. And funding for state-owned airports is pending legislative authority.
Meadow Bailey, communications director with the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT), said after authority is granted, the actual allocations of funding and how it will be used will be determined "soon" by the DOT.
"As CARES funding is intended to mitigate COVID-19 impacts to airports, and enable states to preserve their aviation system in light of the pandemic, DOT&PF does not plan to utilize CARES Act funding on capital projects," said Bailey in a statement. "The FAA is currently executing its annual Airport Improvement Program and the state will be utilizing AIP funds for the capital improvement program."
Earlier this month, RavnAir Group — Alaska's largest rural airline and the only commercial airline serving Unalaska — filed for bankruptcy amid a decline in aviation traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving the community without commercial air service. This followed months of uncertainty surrounding flights, after a fatal plane crash in Unalaska last October.
The plane crash — which led Ravn to ground the Saab 2000 aircraft and certify the smaller, slower DeHavilland Dash 8 on the Anchorage to Unalaska route — prompted the reopening of a discussion about extending the airport's runway to improve safety and accommodate larger planes.
According to Bailey, because there is no current project to extend the runway and the renovation is not linked to impacts from the coronavirus, the CARES Act funding cannot be used to support an airport extension.
"[The] extension of the Dutch Harbor runway is not an established project," said Bailey. "Even if it was, it would not be eligible for CARES funding since this funding will be used to lessen impacts at airports from impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic."
She said the DOT&PF is starting an airport master plan update to evaluate the need to extend the runway. If it is determined that there is a need to extend it, design of the project would begin at that time.
A 2008 report estimated that improving Tom Madsen Airport to be "fully functional" could cost between $140 and $230 million. But City Manager Erin Reinders said in February that it's too soon to estimate the cost of a renovation, which will likely be a years-long process.
The City of Unalaska did not wish to comment.