When RavnAir Group went bankrupt earlier this spring, due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Grant Aviation stepped in alongside Alaska Airlines to provide service between Unalaska and Anchorage, for many locals, it was a huge relief.
But now, as flights are underway between Cold Bay and Unalaska, some of the challenges of flying in the Aleutian Islands and traveling during a pandemic are emerging. And when those challenges—such as flight cancellations—arise in a small community like Cold Bay, they can quickly become troublesome and even dangerous.
Service in and out of Unalaska has been turbulent since last October, when one of Ravn's Saab 2000 planes crashed while landing at Unalaska's airport, killing one passenger and injuring more than a dozen others.
Without reliant and non-stop air service between Unalaska and Anchorage, and unable to use Alaska Airlines' mileage plan to pay for flights to and from the island, people traveling to and from Anchorage could find themselves paying nearly a thousand dollars just to get from point A to point B.
But since May 16, when the regional airline, Grant Aviation, began serving Unalaska, people could once again use those miles on one leg of the two-leg trip: to get to Anchorage from Cold Bay and vice versa.
And in general, the transition and flight service through Grant has gone smoothly. For many Unalaska community members, it was a relief to simply have a cheaper airline option.
"I liked that to Cold Bay it was 235 [dollars] or something. And then the rest of the way [to Anchorage] it’s Alaska [Airlines] miles, and I have tons of miles so that really saves some money," said Unalaska resident, Brie McGrath.
McGrath works at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Dutch Harbor office, but often spends a couple of months off island every year.
She said, when she was looking to leave the island in early June, most of the charter flight options she explored were around $600. But by flying with Grant Aviation, McGrath was able to save money. Not only was she appreciative of the convenience, but for her, the experience was comfortable, and she even looks forward to exploring Cold Bay more, during her next layover there.
"I found that they were doing a really good job. I think they're doing the best they can, and I think that they found a good way to make it work," McGrath said.
But flying along the Aleutian Chain is no simple task, particularly when weather conditions rapidly and drastically change. Flights are often grounded or have to turn around. And in communities where lodging and dining are readily available, flight cancellations are sometimes costly, but not a major inconvenience for most travelers. However, when flights are cancelled in small, isolated communities, such as Cold Bay—and especially during a pandemic—those inconveniences, even just waiting in the airport, can easily become hazardous situations.
"Social distancing was fairly difficult. There was not any ventilation really. They had one door propped open, but it was hot," explained Unalaska local Jamie Stippel. "You know, we were all just kind of sitting in the airport. I had my mom sit outside for a while, but she's 70 and it got cold."
Stippel had left the island with her daughter and 70-year-old mother to accompany her for a medical procedure in Anchorage at the beginning of this month. On their way back to the island on July 8, their flight from Cold Bay to Unalaska was cancelled due to weather.
"For me it would have been an inconvenience, but there were two elderly women on this flight, and that's what bothered me about it," Stippel said.
Before boarding in Anchorage, Stippel said she was reassured by an employee at Unalaska's Tom Madsen Airport that the flight from Cold Bay would not be cancelled, despite weather-related concerns from Alaska Airlines employees. Ultimately, she decided to put her family on the flight to Cold Bay.
But then the flight from Cold Bay to Unalaska was cancelled. And Stippel and her family found local lodging. Stippel says lodging conditions in Cold Bay were not ideal, cost effective, or even sanitary, but with no other choice, she and her family hopped in a van with several others—from all over the states, according to Stippel—and made their way to the lodge where she and her family stayed overnight.
Stippel made it back safely to Unalaska with her mother and daughter, but didn't arrive unscathed. She said while she was thankful to have Grant as an option, she is upset with the way the company handled the cancellation and its overall communication with passengers.
"I'm grateful that they came up with the option, however, I just don't think it's being executed [well]," Stippel said. "And I think that there were a lot of local people that have been here for a long time that automatically saw this being a problem. And I think a lot of people just felt like they weren't being listened to."
Because of the unpredictable weather in the Aleutian Chain and treacherous terrain of the Dutch Harbor airport, landing planes on the island can be particularly difficult. Ultimately, Stippel said she is not willing to risk getting stuck in Cold Bay again, and would therefore, never consider flying into Dutch Harbor on the Grant flight.
And Stippel's concerns are not just for herself and her family, but also for the community of Cold Bay, she said.
Cold Bay has a population of roughly 50 people. While the community already saw its first positive cases of COVID-19 among non-residents in June, it could easily be at high risk of infection, especially if the virus started to spread through the community.
Candace Nielsen—a current council member, mother of three, and former mayor of Cold Bay—said despite concern of the coronavirus entering the community, people in Cold Bay are working together and with Grant employees to make sure travelers have access to the resources they need.
"As a community, Cold Bay's always pulled together to make sure that people are taken care of," Nielsen said. "And that has not stopped just because of potential virus spread. It's just the way this community operates—it's always pulled together to help people out."
While the community is accustomed to seeing travelers come through, according to Nielsen, the virus does add an extra element of stress. And, she said, since Grant began flying passengers to Dutch Harbor from Cold Bay, the influx of traffic has made it difficult for the community to provide enough lodging for the extra passengers that may be forced to stay overnight.
Grant Aviation Director of Operations Dan Knesek echoed those concerns when asked about Cold Bay's capacities to host stranded passengers.
"We're trying to do everything we can to alleviate any problems due to the lack of lodging in Cold Bay," Knesek said. "But we do understand that there's a lot of things that are just out of our control. But we're always trying to do everything we can to make sure that nobody gets stuck without any lodging."
Knesek said that the company tries to mitigate grounded flights by communicating weather conditions with other airlines. And so far, while he is unsure of the number of planes that have been grounded due to weather, he said there have only been two instances where passengers have had to seek lodging in Cold Bay since Grant began offering the service to Unalaskans in May.
Despite constant communication, as Knesek noted, weather changes quickly in the area. And those drastic changes in weather will only increase as we move closer to the winter months. Knesek said Grant is working on plans for the darker and harsher winter approaching. He said, looking forward, one of their solutions for avoiding leaving passengers stranded in Cold Bay is pre-cancellation of flights.
As for now, Knesek said Grant is working hard to ensure both passengers and staff are kept safe and healthy during the pandemic.
"We're following all state mandates and then even going above and beyond by requiring face coverings and everything like that to try to mitigate the risk as much as we can," Knesek explained. "And that's even included in our facilities. We have a very strict sanitation protocol for all of our terminal spaces and our aircraft to also help mitigate those risks."
Grant Aviation currently operates flights between Unalaska and Cold Bay twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Alaska Airlines provides a connecting flight between Cold Bay and Anchorage.