Alaska Seaplanes announced Tuesday it intends to relaunch passenger air service on routes formerly served by RavnAir Group, which declared bankruptcy earlier this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Juneau-based Alaska Seaplanes had previously put in an offer to buy the Part 121 federal operating certificates from Ravn-operated airlines PenAir and Corvus — which allow scheduled service to rural hubs in the Aleutian Islands, Bristol Bay, and the Kenai Peninsula.
"We bid on some of the assets in the Ravn bankruptcy," said Kent Craford, co-owner and president of Alaska Seaplanes. "We unfortunately lost it in a very bizarre auction for the Corvus and PenAir certificates that were attached to RavnAir Group."
After Ravn — which was Alaska's largest rural airline, with 72 planes, 1,300 employees, and more than 100 destinations across the state — cancelled the auction process to sell off its assets earlier this month, Southern California-based FLOAT Shuttle struck a deal with the bankrupt airline to buy the PenAir and Corvus operating certificates and aircraft.
Craford said Alaska Seaplanes was disappointed by the auction process, but not deterred. The Southeast Alaska commuter air carrier still intends to serve the communities that were previously served by Ravn.
"But instead of taking over the old Ravn certificates, [we'll] simply move operations out there under a different and new certificate," he said.
The airline will partner with Wexford Capital — a Connecticut-based investment firm and long-standing participant in the regional airline industry — which recently acquired a Florida-based airline out of bankruptcy, according to Craford.
"So we're going to be adding aircraft to that certificate and serving Unalaska and other communities on the Alaska Peninsula that were previously served by Ravn," he said.
For the community of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, Alaska Seaplanes intends to operate aircraft capable of flying directly from Anchorage, said Craford. The island has been without non-stop commercial service since a fatal plane crash last October, in which one of Ravn's Saab 2000 planes crashed while landing at Unalaska's airport, killing one passenger and injuring more than a dozen others. Afterward, the company switched to using the smaller, slower DeHavilland Dash 8 aircraft, which require a refueling stop.
Since the company declared bankruptcy in April, Unalaskans have depended largely on chartered planes and twice-a-week commercial flights fulfilled by the regional airline, Grant Aviation, which flies between Unalaska and Cold Bay, and then a connecting Alaska Airlines flight from Cold Bay to Anchorage.
"PenAir really had set the bar with their Saab 2000 service," said Craford. "And so right now, we're looking at our aircraft options, but whatever we choose, it's going to be an aircraft that can serve Unalaska directly from Anchorage without a stop in Cold Bay or anything like that."
The airline intends to hire former Ravn and PenAir pilots who are experienced on Aleutian Chain routes, Craford added.
Alaska Seaplanes will be operating alongside FLOAT Shuttle, which also intends to restart scheduled service on all routes formerly served by Ravn — with the exception of Kodiak — in September, according to FLOAT Shuttle's chief operating officer, Rob McKinney. That includes non-stop service between Anchorage and Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, he added.
However, FLOAT has generated concern among Alaskans, who say the Southern California commuter service doesn't have the experience to fly to communities in rural Alaska.
Craford said nothing in FLOAT Shuttle's track record shows that they can operate larger aircraft. The airline is operated under the less-strict Part 135 federal operating certificate for commuter service, rather than the more regulated Part 121 certificates used by Ravn, and uses small planes to fly California commuters who want to avoid getting stuck in traffic.
"They're woefully underprepared to operate service to Unalaska and other Alaska Peninsula communities," Craford said. "Let's keep in mind that this is one of the most challenging places in the world to fly. And I think it's a very disconcerting proposition that they're going from really no experience at all with these kinds of operations to trying to fly out to the Aleutian Chain."
McKinney said in a statement that FLOAT's new focus on providing the best customer service and experience possible will gain them a following that they can count on regardless of what choices in air travel are available. He did not address Craford's concerns about the airline operating in rural Alaska. McKinney previously led a Southeast Alaska airline, Wings, for six years.
KUCB will hold an interview program with McKinney on Friday, July 31, at noon, rebroadcasting at 5 p.m. on KUCB, 89.7 FM.