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PenAir's New Planes, Seven Years And Counting

Chrissy Roes

Since about 2009, PenAir officials have been working on getting new planes for the Anchorage to Dutch Harbor route. The wait is almost over -- but not quite yet.

This week PenAir president Scott Bloomquist said the company is in the final stretch of necessary certification for the Saab 2000. Before any passengers can board, the Federal Aviation Administration has to sign off on the plane after what's called proving runs, which can last anywhere from 35 to 100 hours.

"They want to sit on board with our crews and fly out to the destinations where the airplane is going to go and just make sure that all of our procedures this airplane are being followed and followed to the letter," Bloomquist said.

In order to do that, an FAA official has to be available to do the runs. Manpower shortage at the federal agency is the holdup.

"We're finally in the last little stage that has to happen. And for the proving runs to take place a gentleman from the FAA, located in Texas, has to come up here and ride in -- they're telling us, the first two flights," Bloomquist said. "We've been sitting here for two weeks waiting for him to arrive."

Bloomquist said May 1 is the company's new target date for the Saab 2000 to start carrying passengers.

PenAir has had three of the new planes since early November, and two more are on the way. They will primarily fly between Anchorage and Unalaska, but will be used for other flights in the system.

Bloomquist says getting new planes on the route started with finding the right aircraft for the job.

"Finding an airplane that does 700 nautical miles and goes 140 miles to it’s nearest alternate and land on a 3900 foot strip is pretty hard to find," he said.

The Saab 2000 quickly stood out, but only a few were built.

The plane is a twin-engine turboprop similar to the planes flown now. But the big difference is size and speed. The Saab 2000 carries 45 passengers. Plus, there’s more room for luggage and fuel. The flight to Anchorage will be about 45 minutes shorter. 

While the general public won't ride the Saab 2000 until May 1 or later, PenAir captains and crew are currently flying the plane along the airline's routes. 

Greta Mart worked for KUCB in 2015 and 2016.
Zoë Sobel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2019. She returned to KUCB after a year living in Nepal and Malaysia as a Luce Scholar. She then returned to KUCB as a ProPublica reporter August of 2020 through August of 2021.