The community of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor has been without reliable air service since a fatal plane crash on the island late last year.
Long before that, however, Unalaskans, fishermen, and other industry workers trying to get to and from the island have faced travel woes from harsh weather to a short runway at the base of a steep mountain to ever-changing airlines selling consistently high-priced seats.
Now, two people are promoting a new idea that they say could help address the community's persistent travel problems: a flight co-op to protect people flying between Anchorage and Unalaska.
The vision is a $10/month service that offers protection against delays and would aim to provide seats on charter flights for $600.
While the unproven concept is yet to launch, the co-op's boosters claim it could fix problems like hours of waiting on standby lists at the airport, countless calls and communication on Facebook message boards, and charges for charter flights that never land in their final destination.
"Fundamentally, the Alaska Travel Co-op is about taking control of the travel situation between Dutch Harbor and Anchorage," said Nate Chaffetz, who cofounded the Alaska Travel Co-op with longtime Unalaska businessman Mark Horne, founder of Alaska Wireless, Sundance Stevedoring, and Pacific Stevedoring.
Their goal is to sign up 5,000 corporate clients and individuals before launching, Chaffetz said. With that many people, he said airlines that fly between Unalaska and Anchorage would be forced to listen.
"By creating a membership — kind of like a Costco — we would have a group big enough to really advocate for what the community needs, from an air travel perspective, in a way that's never been done before," Chaffetz said. "And it can only happen if we get a group big enough together to do it."
Members would use a computer — and eventually an app — to look for seats on charter flights in the co-op's system, according to Chaffetz. And, as opposed to many charter flights, customers wouldn't be charged for a flight until it touches down in the final destination of Unalaska or Anchorage.
"What we do provide is insurance against the fact that Dutch Harbor has a tiny runway and it's next to a huge mountain and the weather is going to be bad," Chaffetz said. "So when there are huge backlogs, if you're a member of the Alaska Travel Co-op, you'll be able to tell us that you're stuck in either Dutch Harbor or Anchorage, and we will very quickly be able to pair you with other people who are also stuck into charter flights that we book, that you just show up for, and hopefully gets you going ideally the day the airport opens back up again — or at least one day after, instead of several days after."
Chaffetz — a Seattle-based entrepreneur who is a pilot himself — said the idea was born from his business partner's frustration with air travel to Unalaska. So, he and Horne came up with a solution to a problem that he said is very specific to the island community — which is the number one commercial fishing port in the nation by volume. Although only about 4,500 people live in Unalaska year-round, the population more than doubles during peak fishing seasons.
"So it's sort of a perfect storm in the sense that because of the structural issues of the runway, and also because of the size of the industry, we can actually loop both people who live in the Lower 48, but who come up to fish, as well as community members who live in Dutch Harbor — we can pull everyone together to help solve the the issue of getting stuck."
Ravn Alaska — the rebranded company that bought RavnAir Group's core assets in the wake of its bankruptcy — and Southeast Alaska airline Alaska Seaplanes aim to relaunch scheduled passenger flights to Unalaska in the coming months. But despite the possibility of stable commercial air service on the horizon, Chaffetz said business won't be affected.
He said he's excited that two companies are attempting to solve the critical travel problem in Unalaska, and that he doesn't see commercial flying as a competitor to the Alaska Travel Co-op.
Scott McMurren is a travel industry analyst and columnist with the Anchorage Daily News. He said he applauds the efforts by Chaffetz and Horne to get a buying club together to have more leverage with airlines and charter companies — which, he said, is what fishing companies, oil companies, and even state governments do to get a better deal.
But, McMurren added, he doesn't know that the Alaska Travel Co-op will actually solve the travel problem for Unalaskans. He said it's a noble pursuit, but ultimately the community needs a new runway and bigger planes that offer non-stop, high speed service to better serve the needs of industry and of the community.
"I think that the charter companies, of course, would be happy to talk with Mr. Chaffetz or anybody else who would like to charter an aircraft. That's the business that they're in," said McMurren. "I don't know that they'd get any big breaks, because at the end of the day, you're still chartering an aircraft to fly to Dutch Harbor, whether it's $13,000 or $14,000 or $15,000. There are a lot of moving parts, and I'd be anxious to see how this looks in practice."
As of Tuesday, more than 330 people have signed up with the Alaska Travel Co-op. Chaffetz and Horne aim to get about 4,600 more people to commit to a membership before they launch.