Unalaska grasps at solutions to stifling airfare costs
Unalaska Fire Captain Ben Knowles was elated when he heard the news: after roughly two years of waiting, he could use his Alaska Airlines miles to purchase flights to Unalaska. Like most locals, the firefighter relies on using the mileage sharing program to afford steep airline tickets on and off the remote Aleutian island.
But that excitement quickly turned to anger and frustration when he found out just how many miles it would cost.
“Oh, great, thanks…40,000 miles,” Knowles said. “I can fly first class from Anchorage to New York for 40,000 miles. Why would I want to spend 40,000 miles on a Ravn flight that takes three hours, and my bags aren't gonna get there, or I might not make it?”
The exorbitant cost of air travel has become one of — if not the — major topics of conversation in Unalaska.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, fuel costs spiked across the nation, inciting a rise in air travel costs. Then a slew of factors compounded the problem: inflation, bad weather, pilot shortages and loads of people traveling sent those prices even higher. And in Unalaska, 800 air miles from Anchorage, nestled between the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, those costs are landing a hard blow.
If you want to fly from Anchorage to the Aleutian Islands community using the Alaska Airlines mileage program, it’ll cost you around 40,000 miles. It’s only around 2,500 more to fly to Dubai instead. But Dubai is on the other side of the world — about eight times the distance from Anchorage. It costs more miles to fly from Anchorage to Unalaska than it costs to fly to Paris.
If you’re paying cash, a one-way ticket off the island on Ravn Alaska — the regional airline that services the community — will be a minimum of about $650, but is usually closer to $750. And if you want a refundable ticket, it’ll be nearly $950, which is more than a seat on the average charter.
Even Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who visited Unalaska in August for a matter unrelated to travel, opened a speech by addressing the airfare issue.
“The cost of an airplane ticket to get out here is attention getting," she said. "When it’s close to $1,000 one way to move you and your family, that’s a problem. When you have multiple cancellations and the airport packed with people, trying to come and trying to go, that’s a problem."
It’s pretty much always been expensive to fly to and from Unalaska. It’s a doozy of a trip, involving inclement Aleutian weather and a very small runway surrounded by water and mountains.
Still, recent airfare hikes are bringing some Unalaskans to their breaking point.
“It makes everybody rethink their life moving forward,” said Unalaska City School District Superintendent Dr. Robbie Swint Jr. “And I will say, I am rethinking mine too.”
As costs rise, spirits drop
Up until a few months ago, locals could get a one-way ticket to or from Anchorage on a Ravn Alaska flight for around $400-450 with the company’s Aleutian resident fare. But Ravn abruptly ended that program this summer. Around the same time, ticket prices began jumping. And recently, Ravn announced that they would be charging for all bags, citing increased operation and fuel costs. Previously, Alaska residents were able to check two free bags.
Swint said he left the island with his family at the beginning of summer. When he went to book his tickets back, he got a startling surprise.
“Ravn did all this pretty much at one time,” he said. “We went out in June with one price, and then when we came back, it almost doubled.”
The cost for him and his family of six to leave the island is around $7,000 now, and that’s just airfare and just one-way, he said.
“I mean just to travel back and forth to Anchorage, just to Anchorage, you're not doing anything else, no hotel, no car rental, no food, no travel — if you want to go somewhere else — it's astronomical right now,” Swint said.
Soaring airline prices aren’t unique to the island. A June report by Adobe Analytics found that prices for domestic airlines had risen about 47% around the nation since the start of the year. But Unalaska’s remoteness and the fact that it’s an island provide particularly unique challenges.
Ravn is the only airline currently providing the island with regular commercial air service to Anchorage. Charters are available through a few different companies, but several don’t offer individual seat sales. Charters also might have to make a stop or two on the way and ticket sales are generally last minute and will probably cost just as much or more than a commercial flight.
And while Ravn and Alaska Airlines started allowing customers to purchase Ravn tickets by redeeming their Alaska Airlines miles in April, most people are still paying cash because it costs a huge amount of miles to get to or from Anchorage. Travelers used to be able to redeem a flight between Anchorage and Unalaska for about 10,000 miles, under a similar mileage program with a now defunct airline that covered the region.
Ravn Alaska CEO Rob McKinney told KUCB that Ravn has “no control over how many miles Alaska Airlines charges for redemption.”
But Tim Thompson, a spokesperson for Alaska Airlines, told KUCB Ravn does have a choice between two award levels.
Neither McKinney nor Thompson would specify which level Ravn chose.
KUCB also made multiple queries to McKinney asking why Ravn opted to eliminate the Aleutian rate altogether, rather than raise the price. McKinney didn't directly address those questions, but did respond in an email saying the company’s fuel cost has more than doubled over the past two years, and labor has averaged a 60% increase. He said they’re only pricing tickets based on their costs to operate to Unalaska.
Still, Unalaska Mayor Vince Tutiakoff Sr. said he’s disappointed that Ravn removed the Aleutian resident pricing, and voiced concern that community members will be forced to leave the island in light of these increasing expenses.
“A majority of our people who live here year-round depend on the opportunity to leave and go out for a vacation with their family, and a lot of them don't make what is necessary to get out today,” he said.
Local organizations take a hit
Ravn offers discounts to certain organizations in the city, like the school district. And even though the airline sometimes gives priority to clinic patients who need to get to Anchorage but may not be in bad enough shape to require a medevac, some still struggle to fly out.
So much so, that they’re avoiding seeking medical care all together, according to Dr. Megan Sarnecki, medical director for the Iliuliuk Family and Health Services clinic.
“Now people are hesitant to go in at all because of the cost of just flying [to Anchorage],” Sarnecki said. “If your insurance doesn't cover travel, you're not going to get your colonoscopy and you're probably not even going to go get that cardiology workup. So people are putting stuff off.”
She says that can be dangerous, leaving her and her staff facing scary questions like, “are we sitting on a cancer because this person can't afford to fly in?”
Sarneck said even folks who can afford to fly are often making those trips on their own, rather than with family members.
“People are going off and getting chemo and their family can't go be there with them,” Sarnecki said. “It's heartbreaking.”
The clinic isn’t the only local institution taking a hit. High School Principal, Athletic Director and longtime community member Jim Wilson said the cost of flying right now is a huge hurdle for the district.
“If you're a young teacher making $55,000 a year, and you need to spend $5 to 10,000 of that on airfare, it's difficult to make it,” Wilson said. “And so I think it's going to impact, not only teacher retention, but I also think we're going to see it ultimately impact — I really, truly believe — the size of the community as well. People are having to make really hard decisions about whether they want to stay or go.”
There’s no extra money in the school’s budget to help offset the cost of increased ticket prices, he said. That means fewer students will be able to travel for events. He said coaches, staff and families will have to find new ways to come up with extra money, if they want their students to compete.
“They will need to fundraise an additional amount for every one of those tickets, which is going to be anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000, depending on the price,” Wilson said.
Searching for solutions
Part of Unalaska’s problem is its notoriously challenging runway. Landing a small plane in the temperamental Aleutian weather is difficult, but it’s the only current option.
There is some glimmer of hope on Unalaska’s horizons, though. Many locals have been awaiting the return of the Saab 2000 aircraft — a larger plane that previously flew to the island, prior to its involvement in a fatal crash in 2019.
And this week, that return took a significant step towards materializing, when a Saab 2000 aircraft touched down in Unalaska Sept. 14 as part of a test run by Aleutian Airways, a new regional airline operated by Sterling Airways.
Representatives from the new regional airline previously told KUCB that they would begin offering regular flights to the island in fall 2021. Now, almost a year later, the company has run its first test flight to the island with hopes to begin selling flights soon. The airline still needs to get certification through the Federal Aviation Administration and launch a schedule, which representatives from the company said they anticipate in the fall.
While many locals were excited to see the Saab 2000 on the Tom Madsen runway and the promise of competition that comes with it, the new airline doesn’t guarantee lower ticket prices for Unalaskans.
Meanwhile, city officials said they are working to arrange meetings with Ravn and Alaska Airlines, as well as the Alaska Department of Transportation and the FAA to discuss ways of alleviating current airfare costs.
There are also tentative plans to renovate Unalaska’s airport in the future, but the groundbreaking for those expansions would be millions of dollars and years away.
For now, the city is looking at appropriating some of the funding for that renovation plan toward more immediate concerns, according to Acting City Manager Bil Homka.
“I think we as a city would rather put money towards that immediate need,” Homka said. “If we can get a million dollars just to fund local airfares and spend $1,000 each, that would be about 1,000 flights, at least for locals. It's not a permanent fix. We haven't applied yet. We're still looking into what we can do and what the requirements are.”
Like Homka said, some of the solutions the city is looking at aren’t permanent. They might only patch up the problem for now and most are still a ways out from actually happening. In the meantime, locals will just have to wait out the storm — or fork out the cash to leave the island, if they can afford it.