Unalaska Declares Emergency Over Suspended Air Service; City Plans To Charter Flights For Community

Oct 30, 2019

Unalaska Mayor Vince Tutiakoff Sr. signed a seven-day emergency order on Tuesday, Oct. 29. The City Council ratified it that night, extending it to 21 days.
Credit City of Unalaska

Unalaska has declared a local emergency over the community's lack of commercial air service.

The City Council approved the 21-day declaration at a special meeting on Tuesday — almost two weeks after Ravn Air Group suspended the island's regular flights to and from Anchorage in the wake of a fatal plane crash.

Mayor Vince Tutiakoff Sr. said the emergency order is a sort of message to the airline, which is only offering charter flights until it can certify a new aircraft for the route and restart commercial service.

"We're saying it's not enough," said Tutiakoff. 

With the declaration, the city is planning to take on the complicated and expensive chartering process so individual Unalaskans don't have to. The 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.

Tutiakoff said the city's goal is to get flights up and running next week — as long it can secure an emergency waiver from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Officials will be working toward that waiver for the remainder of this week, as well as checking charter pricing from Ravn and other carriers.

"We heard the number of $27,000 a few days ago," said Tutiakoff. "It depends on the size of the plane and a lot of different things. That's hopefully what we'll find out on Friday."

That timeline would have community charters starting just as Ravn plans to resume regular service — about three weeks after the accident.

Councilor Shari Coleman said the city needs to move forward as if the airline won't be ready.

"I'm not real confident in their date line," said Coleman. "So even though this may seem like it's taking forever, we have to keep putting one foot in front. If [the city's role] is short-term, fabulous. But if it ends up being longer, at least we have a plan."

The special meeting marked the city's first major public rebuke of the handling of Unalaska's air travel in the aftermath of the crash. In addition to criticizing Ravn, councilors said Alaska Airlines should be doing more as the marketing partner that sells the island's flights.

"I was a little miffed by the way Alaska Airlines has basically abandoned all of us here," said Coleman. "We're, as a community, having to figure out how to fend for ourselves."

While Alaska officials have acknowledged the inconvenience of the suspension and refunded tickets through Nov. 8, they've said they can't help Unalaskans find flights in the interim — or offset the price of charters, many of which are coming in well above the average commercial ticket.

Beyond enabling the city's short-term plan to front charters, Tutiakoff said declaring an emergency will help councilors seek state and federal help for long-term projects to improve the airport's safety and reliability.

Specifically, he said they need to consider lengthening the runway so it can host larger planes and attract different airlines.

"We're hoping this emergency declaration would also rattle the cages in Washington D.C.," said Tutiakoff. "Start looking at this community for what it is. We're the largest fishing community [by port volume in the country] and here we're sitting, being fed little planes, when we have 10,000 to 20,000 people coming in in about a month and a half."

With the busy winter fishing season set to ramp up in late December, it's unclear what Unalaska's air service will look like at that time — or how well airlines will be able to handle the influx of seasonal fishermen and processors. 

Tutiakoff said the City Council is planning to continue calling special meetings as the situation unfolds, including one session this Friday, Nov. 1 at 6 p.m.