The City of Unalaska has adopted an emergency ordinance to appropriate funds for chartered flights following a fatal PenAir plane crash last month and Ravn Air Group's decision to suspend regular flights to and from Anchorage.
At a special meeting on Friday, the City Council approved $352,800 for a short-term emergency air transportation program, following its declaration of a local emergency over Unalaska's lack of commercial air service. The funds will pay for charters, insurance, and related legal fees.
City Manager Erin Reinders said the city has been authorized by the U.S. Department of Transportaion to operate public charters. She also said the city is taking on the complicated and expensive chartering process so individual Unalaskans don't have to.
The emergency order allows the city to charter as many as three flights per week — and to resell seats to the many community members looking to travel for work, vacation, medical appointments, and more.
"As part of that, we also have entered into a partnership with Ravn for up to three charters a week for the next three weeks," said Reinders. "Each charter will cost $26,000 and will be prepaid by the City of Unalaska."
The city initially chartered flights that will cost $600 one-way for Monday and Wednesday of this week in the hopes that regular flights would resume on Friday, Nov. 8. But Ravn announced Friday that it would not resume service until Nov. 14.
"New scheduled service to the community of Unalaska will begin on Nov. 14, and we plan to have flights back to the same frequency as before about a week later," said a statement by Ravn President Dave Pflieger. "I want to thank everyone impacted by our cessation of Saab 2000 flying for your patience, understanding, and assistance over the past three weeks while we did everything necessary inside Ravn and with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to start new Dash 8 air service to Dutch Harbor."
Neither Ravn nor Alaska Airlines officials have responded to KUCB's requests for an on-tape interview.
Meanwhile, community members said they need the city and airlines to figure out a solution quickly. At Friday's meeting, resident Fr. Evon Bereskin said he's desperate to get off the island to attend a family member's funeral.
"We've got to get out," said Bereskin. "I just hope the airline is really trying to push forward and trying to do what they can for us as a community. I'm certainly feeling the pressure with the death of a family member now, and I'm trying to get out as soon as possible."
Resident June McGlashan also testified to the urgent need for Unalaska's air service to resume. McGlashan works at the Oonalaska Wellness Center, and she said patients have to travel for medical appointments.
"I have like four elders who need to fly out to make appointments," said McGlashan. "And with elders, they're tricky, because they get sick fast. We want them to get sent out, not medevaced."
While community members, fishermen, and medical personnel continue to try to get on charter flights, unpredictable weather is proving a hindrance. The city's first charter, for instance, was grounded Monday as a result of poor weather.
Dental assistant Brook Crow, of Kodiak, was on the 7 a.m. charter, which left Anchorage, landed in King Salmon, and then turned around. She was originally scheduled to fly to Unalaska on Oct. 18, a day after the plane crash, but Monday was the soonest she could get on a charter.
"It's frustrating, because I need to go to work," said Crow, speaking at baggage claim at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. "We have patients who need us. It's unfortunate. The whole situation's really sad. We have a volleyball team right here behind us, and the student government and the high school swim team that's been trying to get home for a while too. Everybody's out of sorts right now."
The City Council is expected to continue its discussion of Unalaska's air travel at a meeting on Nov. 12.